journal

biden dreams

August 16, 2020 commentary

WASHINGTON — One wintry day in 1992, my boss drolly told me to try to look young.

We were meeting Richard Nixon and the fallen president preferred to talk to reporters who were not old enough to have covered his Waterloo of Watergate.

We had our coffee with him two years before he died. Some of his observations on the presidential race were smart but one seemed more vengeful than visionary.

He warned that Bill Clinton’s campaign would have to be careful about how it deployed Hillary Clinton. “If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp,’’ he said, adding that unfortunately some voters concurred with Cardinal Richelieu’s pronouncement, “Intellect in a woman is unbecoming.”

I wondered if he was still smarting that Hillary Rodham had been a lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry. And I didn’t agree with him. Arkansas voters had a period of adjustment with their governor’s formidable wife. But on the national stage, it was Bill Clinton’s inability to control his appetites that made him seem weak — not having a strong partner.

Without missing a beat, nearly three decades later, William Bennett went on Fox News after Joe Biden anointed Kamala Harris and picked up right where Nixon had left off.

“She is a very ambitious person,’’ Bennett told Bret Baier, about how the California senator might overshadow Biden. “She’ll be out there doing tons of interviews. Where will Joe be? Will he still be in the basement? There could be some problems here that arise.”

It won’t fly.

All those old tropes about castrating women are threadbare as Trump’s despicable attempt to recycle the birther smear he used to slime Barack Obama, this time against Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother. She was born in Oakland, Calif.

Biden looks confident for choosing an accomplished woman who delivered a haymaker in a debate. After Donald Trump’s petty vindictiveness, Biden rising above grudges is a lovely thing to behold.

President Trump represents the last primal shriek of retrograde white men afraid to lose their power. He’s a dinosaur who evokes a world of beauty pageants, “suburban housewives,’’ molestation, cheating on your wife when she’s pregnant, paying off porn stars, preferring women to be seen and not heard, dismissing women who challenge you as nasty, angry and crazy.

Even as Fox hacks lambasted Harris as “transactional,” Michael Cohen dropped an excerpt from his tell-all describing life with Trump as a mob movie: “I bore witness to the real man, in strip clubs, shady business meetings, and in the unguarded moments when he revealed who he really was: a cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a con man.”

In his nefarious attempt to suppress the vote, Trump is ruining that great American achievement, the U.S. Postal Service. He’s complimenting Marjorie Taylor Greene, the winner of a Republican primary in Georgia who openly flirts with the insane QAnon cult and says she’s going to Washington to get rid of that “bitch,” Nancy Pelosi. (Let us know how that goes.) And, inexplicably, the president is talking about undermining Social Security, not only touching the third rail of politics but picking it up and putting it in his mouth.

Yet our mad king has the gall to dismiss Harris as “sort of a madwoman.”

Trump’s hard-core base of white misogynists and his yammering sewing circle of Bill Barr, Rudy Giuliani, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson will eat it up.

“Is America ready for a shallow, hectoring, rich lady whose only real fans work at hedge funds and MSNBC?” Carlson said, hectoring.

Harris has shown that she can throw a few elbows, that she doesn’t worry about always being nice, and I like that about her. The effort to cast her as an Angry Woman will not succeed; the country is rapidly moving past such caricatures. Besides, women should be angry. Trump’s feckless response to the coronavirus has forced parents to play Russian roulette with their kids and schools.

It’s rich that the campaign of the phony in the Oval called Biden’s running mate “Phony Kamala.” If Team Trump wants to depict her as calculating, bring it on.

After all the Trump flailing, some calculating would be welcome. We need the daughter of a scientist — as a little girl, she washed her mother’s test tubes at the research lab — to calculate the best way to get us out of virus Groundhog Day, once the president who fought masks and who bungled testing is dispatched. We need someone who worked in law enforcement to calculate the best way to reimagine policing without decimating it.

The charismatic senator bristles at being called “the female Obama.’’ Valerie Jarrett, Hilary Rosen and other feminists have sent out a memo instructing the media not to talk about the appearance of a woman running on the ticket. Don’t call her glamorous! Still, I have to say, the senator has that same magnetic smile that Obama had, back in the days before Mitch McConnell wore him down, a smile that fills you with hope about what America can be.

After Biden teamed up with Obama, he said privately that he knew that he was unlikely to succeed the president because his party would want to make history with the first woman in the White House after the first Black president. Biden would have to settle for being the bridge linking the past — experience and establishment ties — to a future with the exciting political newcomer.

But fate, which has often been cruel to Biden, has provided a stunning, soaring twist to the story. After being condescended to by Obama whippersnappers and Hillaryworld, and pushed out of contention for the 2016 race by Obama, Biden was brought back to life in 2020, at age 77, by Jim Clyburn and Black voters in South Carolina. And now he will be the nominee he thought he could never be, as well as the bridge for another younger, biracial, razzle-dazzle partner with an uncommon first name. This time, it’s a woman from the West with a “Modern Family” home life. Biden could be paving the way for the first woman to be president, one who writes with pride about her Black and South Asian roots. (A bit of expiation for Anita Hill.)

If that happens, Donald Trump will deserve some credit, too, for mobilizing women voters to fight against his porcine, backward, dangerous behavior and inspiring Democrats to push for a woman, especially a woman of color, to get the golden ticket. Trump tweeted Friday that he wants to build a “BEAUTIFUL STATUE” here in honor of the centennial of women getting the right to vote. But being the catalyst to elect the first woman as vice president would be the best way to celebrate.

by Maureen Dowd
Opinion Columnist
New York Times
Sunday, August 16, 2020

John R. Lewis (1940 – 2020)

July 30, 2020 commentary

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John R. Lewis Lying in State, US Capital
Word-count-3,664

President Barack Obama’s Eulogy for John R. Lewis
Thursday, July 30, 2020 – Ebenezer Baptist Church – Atlanta, Georgia

James wrote to the believers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

It is a great honor to be back in Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to pay my respects to perhaps his finest disciple – an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance – John Robert Lewis.

To those who have spoken to Presidents Bush and Clinton, Madam Speaker, Reverend Warnock, Reverend King, John’s family, friends, his beloved staff, Mayor Bottoms – I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom.

Now, this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect; that what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible.

John Lewis – the first of the Freedom Riders, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of this state and this district for 33 years, mentor to young people, including me at the time, until his final day on this Earth – he not only embraced that responsibility, but he made it his life’s work.

Which isn’t bad for a boy from Troy. John was born into modest means – that means he was poor – in the heart of the Jim Crow South to parents who picked somebody else’s cotton. Apparently, he didn’t take to farm work – on days when he was supposed to help his brothers and sisters with their labor, he’d hide under the porch and make a break for the school bus when it showed up. His mother, Willie Mae Lewis, nurtured that curiosity in this shy, serious child. “Once you learn something,” she told her son, “once you get something inside your head, no one can take it away from you.”

As a boy, John listened through the door after bedtime as his father’s friends complained about the Klan. One Sunday as a teenager, he heard Dr. King preach on the radio. As a college student in Tennessee, he signed up for Jim Lawson’s workshops on the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience. John Lewis was getting something inside his head, an idea he couldn’t shake that took hold of him – that nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience were the means to change laws, but also change hearts, and change minds, and change nations, and change the world.

So he helped organize the Nashville campaign in 1960. He and other young men and women sat at a segregated lunch counter, well-dressed, straight-backed, refusing to let a milkshake poured on their heads, or a cigarette extinguished on their backs, or a foot aimed at their ribs, refused to let that dent their dignity and their sense of purpose. And after a few months, the Nashville campaign achieved the first successful desegregation of public facilities in any major city in the South.

John got a taste of jail for the first, second, third…well, several times. But he also got a taste of victory. And it consumed him with righteous purpose. And he took the battle deeper into the South.

That same year, just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of interstate bus facilities was unconstitutional, John and Bernard Lafayette bought two tickets, climbed aboard a Greyhound, sat up front, and refused to move. This was months before the first official Freedom Rides. He was doing a test. The trip was unsanctioned. Few knew what they were up to. And at every stop, through the night, apparently the angry driver stormed out of the bus and into the bus station. And John and Bernard had no idea what he might come back with or who he might come back with. Nobody was there to protect them. There were no camera crews to record events. You know, sometimes, we read about this and kind of take it for granted. Or at least we act as if it was inevitable. Imagine the courage of two people Malia’s age, younger than my oldest daughter, on their own, to challenge an entire infrastructure of oppression.

John was only twenty years old. But he pushed all twenty of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of convention, and generations of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities suffered by African Americans.

Like John the Baptist preparing the way, like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings, John Lewis did not hesitate – he kept on getting on board buses and sitting at lunch counters, got his mugshot taken again and again, marched again and again on a mission to change America.

Spoke to a quarter million people at the March on Washington when he was just 23.

Helped organize the Freedom Summer in Mississippi when he was just 24.

At the ripe old age of 25, John was asked to lead the march from Selma to Montgomery. He was warned that Governor Wallace had ordered troopers to use violence. But he and Hosea Williams and others led them across that bridge anyway. And we’ve all seen the film and the footage and the photographs, and President Clinton mentioned the trench coat, the knapsack, the book to read, the apple to eat, the toothbrush – apparently jails weren’t big on such creature comforts. And you look at those pictures and John looks so young and he’s small in stature. Looking every bit that shy, serious child that his mother had raised and yet, he is full of purpose. God’s put perseverance in him.

And we know what happened to the marchers that day. Their bones were cracked by billy clubs, their eyes and lungs choked with tear gas. As they knelt to pray, which made their heads even easier targets, and John was struck in the skull. And he thought he was going to die, surrounded by the sight of young Americans gagging, and bleeding, and trampled, victims in their own country of state-sponsored violence.

And the thing is, I imagine initially that day, the troopers thought that they had won the battle. You can imagine the conversations they had afterwards. You can imagine them saying, “yeah, we showed them.” They figured they’d turned the protesters back over the bridge; that they’d kept, that they’d preserved a system that denied the basic humanity of their fellow citizens. Except this time, there were some cameras there. This time, the world saw what happened, bore witness to Black Americans who were asking for nothing more than to be treated like other Americans. Who were not asking for special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them a century before, and almost another century before that.

When John woke up, and checked himself out of the hospital, he would make sure the world saw a movement that was, in the words of Scripture, “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” They returned to Brown Chapel, a battered prophet, bandages around his head, and he said more marchers will come now. And the people came. And the troopers parted. And the marchers reached Montgomery. And their words reached the White House – and Lyndon Johnson, son of the South, said “We shall overcome,” and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

The life of John Lewis was, in so many ways, exceptional. It vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas; that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation, and come together, and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals. What a radical ideal. What a revolutionary notion. This idea that any of us, ordinary people, a young kid from Troy can stand up to the powers and principalities and say no this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just. We can do better. On the battlefield of justice, Americans like John, Americans like the Reverends Lowery and C.T. Vivian, two other patriots that we lost this year, liberated all of us that many Americans came to take for granted.

America was built by people like them. America was built by John Lewises. He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom; when we do form a more perfect union – whether it’s years from now, or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries – John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.

And yet, as exceptional as John was, here’s the thing: John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do. I mentioned in the statement the day John passed, the thing about John was just how gentle and humble he was. And despite this storied, remarkable career, he treated everyone with kindness and respect because it was innate to him – this idea that any of us can do what he did if we are willing to persevere.

He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, that in all of us there is a  longing to do what’s right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. So many of us lose that sense. It’s taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, that we can’t afford to extend kindness or decency to other people. That we’re better off if we are above other people and looking down on them, and so often that’s encouraged in our culture. But John always saw the best in us. And he never gave up, and never stopped speaking out because he saw the best in us. He believed in us even when we didn’t believe in ourselves. As a Congressman, he didn’t rest; he kept getting himself arrested. As an old man, he didn’t sit out any fight; he sat in, all night long, on the floor of the United States Capitol. I know his staff was stressed.

But the testing of his faith produced perseverance. He knew that the march is not yet over, that the race is not yet won, that we have not yet reached that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character. He knew from his own life that progress is fragile; that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history, of our own history, with their whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again.

Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting – by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the runup to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.

Now, I know this is a celebration of John’s life. There are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But that’s why I’m talking about it. John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we are seeing circulate right now.

He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power. And that the fate of this democracy depends on how we use it; that democracy isn’t automatic, it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to, we have to work at it, it’s hard. And so he knew it depends on whether we summon a measure, just a measure, of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are. He said that as long as he had breath in his body, he would do everything he could to preserve this democracy. That as long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy – not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, a big-hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation – then we are going to have to be more like John. We don’t have to do all the things he had to do because he did them for us. But we have got to do something. As the Lord instructed Paul, “Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Just everybody’s just got to come out and vote. We’ve got all those people in the city but we can’t do nothing.

Like John, we have got to keep getting into that good trouble. He knew that nonviolent protest is patriotic; a way to raise public awareness, put a spotlight on injustice, and make the powers that be uncomfortable.

Like John, we don’t have to choose between protest and politics, it is not an either-or situation, it is a both-and situation. We have to engage in protests where that is effective but we also have to  translate our passion and our causes into laws and institutional practices. That’s why John ran for Congress thirty-four years ago.

Like John, we have got to fight even harder for the most powerful tool we have, which is the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act is one of the crowning achievements of our democracy. It’s why John crossed that bridge. It’s why he spilled his blood. And by the way, it was the result of Democratic and Republican efforts. President Bush, who spoke here earlier, and his father, both signed its renewal when they were in office. President Clinton didn’t have to because it was the law when he arrived so instead he made a law that made it easier for people to register to vote.

But once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, some state legislatures unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting harder, especially, by the way, state legislatures where there is a lot of minority turnout and population growth. That’s not necessarily a mystery or an accident. It was an attack on what John fought for. It was an attack on our democratic freedoms. And we should treat it as such.

If politicians want to honor John, and I’m so grateful for the legacy of work of all the Congressional leaders who are here, but there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better.

By making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance.

By adding polling places, and expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are someone who is working in a factory, or you are a single mom who has got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot.

By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C. and in Puerto Rico. They are Americans.

By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering– so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around.

And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster – another Jim Crow relic – in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.

And yet, even if we do all this – even if every bogus voter suppression law was struck off the books today – we have got to be honest with ourselves that too many of us choose not to exercise the franchise; that too many of our citizens believe their vote won’t make a difference, or they buy into the cynicism that, by the way,  is the central strategy of voter suppression, to make you discouraged, to stop believing in your own power.

So we are also going to have to remember what John said: “If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.” As long as young people are protesting in the streets, hoping real change takes hold, I’m hopeful but we cannot casually abandon them at the ballot box. Not when few elections have been as urgent, on so many levels, as this one. We cannot treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy.

Like John, we have to give it all we have.

I was proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. I met him when I was in law school. He came to speak and I went up and I said, “Mr. Lewis, you are one of my heroes. What inspired me more than anything as a young man was to see what you and Reverend Lawson and Bob Moses and Diane Nash and others did.” And he got that kind of – aw shucks, thank you very much.

The next time I saw him, I had been elected to the United States Senate. And I told him, “John, I am here because of you.” On Inauguration Day in 2008, 2009, he was one of the first people that I greeted and hugged on that stand. I told him, “This is your day too.”

He was a good and kind and gentle man. And he believed in us – even when we don’t believe in ourselves. It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was on Zoom. I am pretty sure that neither he nor I set up the Zoom call because we didn’t know how to work it. It was a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who had been helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And afterwards, I spoke to John privately, and he could not have been prouder to see this new generation of activists standing up for freedom and equality; a new generation that was intent on voting and protecting the right to vote; in some cases, a new generation running for political office.

I told him, all those young people, John – of every race and every religion, from every background and gender and sexual orientation – John, those are your children. They learned from your example, even if they didn’t always know it. They had understood, through him, what American citizenship requires, even if they had only heard about his courage through the history books.

“By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white…have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Dr. King said that in the 1960s. And it came true again this summer.

We see it outside our windows, in big cities and rural towns, in men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, Blacks who long for equal treatment and whites who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.

And that’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.

What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while, and show us the way.

God bless you all. God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise.

Eating Olives at the End of the World (essay-34)

April 12, 2020 commentary

A story by Etgar Keret

Image from article in The New York Review of Books
Word-count – 371

The world is about to end and I’m eating olives. The original plan was pizza, but when I walked into the grocery store and saw all the empty shelves, I realized I could forget about pizza dough and tomato sauce. I tried talking to the cashier at the express line, an older lady who was Skyping with someone in Spanish on her cell phone, but she answered me without even glancing up. She looked devastated.

“They bought everything,” she murmured, “all that’s left is menstrual pads and pickles.”

The only thing on the pickle shelf was a single jar of pimento-stuffed olives, my favorite kind.

By the time I got back to the checkout, the cashier was in tears. “He’s like a warm loaf of bread,” she said, “my sweet little grandson. I’ll never see him again, I’ll never smell him, I’ll never get to hug my baby again.”

Instead of answering, I put the jar down on the conveyor belt and pulled a fifty out of my pocket. “It’s okay,” I said when I realized she wasn’t going to take the bill, “I don’t need change.”

“Money?” she said with a snort, “the world is about to end and you’re offering me money? What exactly am I supposed to do with it?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I really want these olives. If fifty isn’t enough I’ll pay more, whatever it costs…”

“A hug,” the tearful cashier interrupted me and spread her arms out, “it’ll cost you a hug.”

I’m sitting on my balcony at home now, watching TV and eating cheese and olives. It was difficult to get the TV out here, but if this is it, then there’s no better way to end it than with a starry sky and a lousy Argentinian soap. It’s episode 436 and I don’t know any of the characters. They’re beautiful, they’re emotional, they’re yelling at each other in Spanish. There are no subtitles, so it’s hard to understand exactly what they’re shouting about. I close my eyes and think back to the cashier at the grocery store. When we hugged I tried to be small, to be warmer than I really am. I tried to smell like I’d only just been born.

Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.
April 12, 2020, 7:00 am

Trump Meets Nemesis, Punisher of Hubris (essay-33)

March 14, 2020 commentary
Nemesis, 1501–2, by Albrecht Dürer
Word-count – 861

A virus exposes the folly of what the president’s base believes.

By Bret Stephens
Opinion Columnist

The word “nemesis” is too often misused. We tend to think of it as meaning a powerful, nefarious, but ultimately conquerable enemy: Vader; Voldemort; the Wicked Witch of the West. But the original Nemesis was not a villain. She was a goddess — an implacable agent of justice who gives the arrogant, insolent and wicked what they deserve.

As a matter of public health, nobody should ever suggest that the novel coronavirus represents any form of justice, divine or otherwise. It’s a virus that must be stopped.

As a matter of politics, however, it’s hard to think of a mechanism so uniquely well-suited for exposing the hubris, ignorance, prejudice, mendacity and catastrophic self-regard of the president who is supposed to lead us through this crisis.

A few points to mention.

Alternative facts. In recent days, conservative pundits appear to have been scandalized by the suggestion that the coronavirus is Donald Trump’s Chernobyl. They miss the point, which is not that the virus is a nuclear furnace. It’s that the same absence of trust that pervaded the relationship between the Soviet regime and its people also pervades the relationship between much of America and its president.

A leader who cannot be believed will not be followed, even, or especially, in periods of emergency. If Trump’s supporters now wonder why Americans won’t rally around the president as they did around George W. Bush after 9/11, there’s the answer.

America First. Trump didn’t fail to insert his favorite catchphrase into his speech on Wednesday. As usual, it managed to combine jingoism with bad policy. Instead of boasting, he could have learned from South Korea how to test better. Instead of trying to talk down the threat, he could have learned from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to speak about it far more honestly. Instead of offering rosy guesses of what the ultimate case fatality rate might be, he could have learned from Germany’s Angela Merkel to teach Americans some sobering math.

Putting America First — a slogan — first, means putting Americans — real ones — last.

Build the wall. “The virus remains low-risk domestically because of the containment actions taken by this administration since the first of the year.” So said a White House spokesman late last month, following the president’s monomaniacal belief that there’s hardly a problem in America that can’t be fixed by building a wall, shutting a port, booting a migrant, imposing a tariff, or blaming a foreigner — right down to a “foreign virus.”

Except that containment turned out to have dwindling returns once the virus moved beyond China, squandering time and resources while creating a false sense of geographic immunity. Had the White House abandoned its ideological obsession a month ago and instead urged or mandated social distancing from the start, we’d be in a better place now.

Drain the swamp. The administration’s other core belief is that America is in the evil grip of the “administrative state.” But while it’s one thing to pare federal bloat and curb bureaucratic overreach, what we have now is a White House that can’t distinguish between muscle and fat, essential government and excess.

Hence the disconnect between the president’s airy promise that the coronavirus test is available to all who need it, and the sobering reality that kits are in critically low supply. Hence also the astonishing congressional testimony this week by the White House’s acting budget director that he’s sticking to his proposal to slash the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of broader cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Very stable genius. Millions of Trump’s supporters aren’t blind to the president’s clownishness and ignorance. But they’ve been relatively indifferent to both, because they find the first entertaining and the second irrelevant to his overall performance. Who cares what a president knows about epidemiology, so long as the markets are up?

They care now. The coronavirus has exposed the falsehood of so many notions Trump’s base holds about the presidency: that experts are unnecessary; that hunches are a substitute for knowledge; that competence in administration is overrated; that every criticism is a hoax; and that everything that happens in Washington is B.S. Above all, it has devastated the conceit that having an epic narcissist in the White House is a riskless proposition at a time of extreme risk.

Will Trump’s declaration of a national emergency change this?

Maybe, and the president has a belated opportunity to demonstrate seriousness he has lacked so far. But nobody should forget that such seriousness would only be a function of political expediency. Should coronavirus recede in warmer weather, you can depend on Trump to declare his premature victory — not warn that winter is coming.

It should not have had to take a deadly virus to expose this presidency for what it is. But it’s fitting that it has. A man who thinks he can twist every truth to suit his needs has at last discovered that he cannot twist the truths of nature and of one of nature’s gods. Her name remains Nemesis.

I Don’t Hate Women Candidates … (essay-32)

March 6, 2020 commentary
Rob Rogers Cartoon
Word-count – 749

I DON’T HATE WOMEN CANDIDATES  —  I JUST HATED HILLARY CLINTON AND NOW BELIEVE THAT ELIZABETH WARREN IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE COLLAPSE OF THE REPUBLIC

by DEVORAH BLACHOR

When you hated Hillary Clinton, you didn’t really have to explain yourself. Everyone understood why someone would hate Hillary Clinton, the worst Pizzagate warmonger in human history who was so evil that she spent her First Lady years trying to get Americans universal healthcare. Ugh.

But it was hard to reach the same conclusion with Elizabeth Warren. At least, it was hard at first. When we were introduced to her, she was fiercely taking on the big banks and lobbyists to create the CFPB, which returned $12 billion to consumers and students who had been defrauded.

After that, we got to know Warren better as an advocate for requiring banks to admit wrongdoing and pay fines, as an opponent to big pharma and health-industry corruption, and as a champion of the progressive agenda. If anti-corruption took human form, it would definitely look like a 70-year-old professor in a Nina McLemore tailored jacket.

But then something changed. It’s hard to pin down just when, but if pressed, I’d have to say the turning point was when Elizabeth Warren gained momentum in the presidential race, and then made a mistake. That’s when I knew she wasn’t an ideal candidate, but instead was a demonic creature who must be stopped before she destroyed our country.

For some, Warren’s ruinous mistake was her Medicare for All plan, which would have brought Americans universal healthcare. That would have been amazing, but when Chris Matthews made it sound so inconvenient because of an increased tax rate, we all understood that Warren was unfit to serve. In contrast, any vagaries surrounding Bernie’e Medicare for All plan were just details to be hammered out at a later date.

For others, her big error was the DNA test. When she apologized for it, Warren proved that she’s irredeemable and untrustworthy. Every time the most lying President in American history called her “Pocahontas,” we were reminded anew of how terrible she was.

But for those who are more forgiving, Elizabeth Warren became unsupportable only once we found out how she didn’t vote the exact right way in the Senate. Did you know that she voted for a bill to increase military spending, which means she actually KILLED INNOCENT PEOPLE? That’s a real thing people and bots wrote on Twitter, so it must be logical. Her moral purity was forever tarnished, whereas the stain of any questionable vote or actions taken by the other candidates could be easily washed away by Pete’s intelligence, Joe’s likeability, Mike’s money, and Bernie’s Bernieness.

Still, none of Elizabeth Warren’s blunders were as bad as the worst crime of all, which is that she stayed in the presidential race. This was unforgivable. Once Warren’s poll numbers started to go down, the writing was on the wall, but she was too much of a crazed megalomaniacal she-devil to read it. If other candidates slumped in the polls, it was a sign that they should shift tactics, but for Warren, that absolutely meant she should step aside. Her optimism and hope, and the way she inspired her supporters, wasn’t important at all. It was just coronavirus poison in disguise.

A few months ago, when I was hating Kamala Harris, I couldn’t have imagined a candidate eliciting the same kind of strong negative emotion, but man I was wrong. And because Warren stayed in the race through Super Tuesday, the consequences will be catastrophic. Thanks to her, other candidates didn’t get the votes they should have received, and now we’ll never have universal healthcare and climate change will destroy the planet. If only she had dropped out sooner, or never ran in the first place, none of these misfortunes would have happened. But now we are doomed. When Donald Trump is reelected, we can lay all the blame on Elizabeth Warren, and that will feel so good.

I don’t hate women candidates — those snake emojis were symbols of love and respect for them — I just hated Hillary Clinton, and now I hate Elizabeth Warren. As I decide between the spry, fresh faces of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, I will tell my daughter that girls can do anything, that the sky’s the limit, and that she can even be president of the United States one day — just as long as she doesn’t make any mistakes or get in any man’s way.

Forgiveness (essay-31)

February 29, 2020 commentary
Saturday, February 29, 2020
Word-count – 569

Forgiveness is about living in the present.

The idea of forgiveness has been in my head for a while – guess age will do that to you.
I’ve always wanted to know how marriages survive infidelity or betrayal and it’s taken my getting to my 70th decade to glimpse at how that process may work.

Asides
1. – I claim that one of the many reasons Hillary Clinton lost was because she couldn’t or wouldn’t teach us anything about the process she went through after her husband’s spectacularly public and cringingly sordid infidelity. Hillary never explained how a partner gets to the other side of betrayal.
If our leaders are supposed to help us unravel the complexities of life, then Hillary failed us; she refused to share the information; she was silent about a very human experience.

Infidelity as betrayal is a theme in all literature. The novel of adultery is one of the leading literary tradition in Europe and in the United States – Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Madame Bovary, Othello, Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Great Gatsby, The World According to Garp, What Is Remembered, The Days of Abandonment.

2. – In the summaries of many e-books, the writer points out that there is no cheating in the story – an amazing strategy to lure readers. And that heads-up is something I appreciate, because I’m tired of the old trope as plot device or character study. It’s as if there’s not enough drama in everyday human life; it’s as if infidelity happen to everyone; it’s as if modern writers have to default to sexual infidelity the sell books.
Sorry, I forget we’re in the ‘priapic-period’ in America and everything is about the phallus. It began with Bill Clinton and continued on with Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and the current occupant of the White House.

Now, I come from a culture where infidelity as betrayal is seen as abhorrent. Southern Italians despise the unfaithful spouse especially the unfaithful wife – she’s a putana. The Italian curse-word for women isn’t bitch – a derogatory that designates attitude – no the Italian curse-word is whore and it comments on behavior that betrays the marriage vow.

So, it’s betrayal, not sexual adventurism, that is the ultimate sin.

Let’s not forget that Dante puts the adulterer in the second circle of hell, just past the vestibule, but the betrayers – Judas Iscariot, Marcus Brutus, Gaius Cassius – he places in the depths of the inferno, at its epicenter – in Satan’s jaws.

And secondly, nowhere in the New Testament is Judas forgiven for his betrayal. As a matter of fact, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “it would be better for that man if he had never been born.” Can’t think of a much more condemning verdict. And this is coming from the god-human and he is refusing to forgive his betrayer. What does that tell us about the gravity of the act? And what do Christ’s words tell us about our own response to betrayal? They seem to suggest, that when it comes to this transgression, we don’t have to forgive.

3. – The image is a sketch of El beso de Judas by Antoni Gaudí – Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.

If betrayal is such an extreme infraction that even The Messiah couldn’t forgive it (let’s remember that Christ asks his Father to forgive those who put him to death); and if this biblical protagonist is supposed to be our role-model, then how do we, mere humans, break the pattern and forgive the betrayer?

Mike Bloomberg is Hacking Your Attention (essay-30)

February 20, 2020 commentary

Today, after the Las Vegas Democratic debate, the media stupids are tripping over themselves to tell us how badly Bloomberg did at last night’s debate. FOOLS every single one of them – they’ve leaned nothing in the last three years.

Shamelessness and conflict equal attention. Attention equals power.

By Charlie Warzel
Mr. Warzel is an Opinion writer at large
February 13, 2020

Mike Bloomberg and his presidential campaign respect the fundamental equation governing the modern internet: Shamelessness and conflict equal attention. And attention equals power.

Since declaring his campaign late last fall, the former New York City mayor has used his billions to outspend his competition in an attempt to hack the country’s attention. It seems to be working — this column is yet more proof.

There are his ubiquitous television, YouTube and Facebook ads. There are his tweets, many of which are weird enough to generate the right amount of viral confusion or are pugnacious enough toward Donald Trump to provoke the ire of the presidential Twitter feed. Then there are the influencers. Starting this week the Bloomberg campaign enlisted the help of a number of popular meme-makers to create sponsored Instagram content for the candidate. The rollout was extremely effective, generating substantial praise and disdain. The ratio doesn’t really matter — what matters is that people were talking about Mr. Bloomberg, a candidate who skipped Iowa and New Hampshire and is nonetheless a top-tier contender for the Democratic nomination.

These Extremely Online tactics fit the larger ethos of the Bloomberg campaign, which feels like a control group experiment for a study positing, “What if you ran a presidential campaign so optimized for efficiency and reach that you cut the human element of campaigning altogether?” As my newsroom colleague Matt Flegenheimer wrote in January, Mr. Bloomberg is not really playing chess, “he is more accurately working to bury the board with a gusher of cash so overpowering that everyone forgets how the game was always played in the first place.”This is certainly true from a media buying standpoint. Mr. Bloomberg has blanketed the airwaves with television and radio ads, spending over $250 million since beginning his campaign in November. Online, his campaign is even more prolific — NBC News calculated that he’s spent more than $1 million a day on average during the past two weeks on Facebook. He’s spent so much that marketers suggest the flood of ads might be driving up prices for the Trump campaign and taking eyeballs away from the president’s own buckshot campaign to own voters’ news feeds.

At the heart of these tactics is a genuine shamelessness that fits perfectly not just with politics but also the internet at large. Mr. Bloomberg is unapologetic about — and unafraid to hide — the money he’s spending. That transactional approach is an excellent match for online influencer culture, where young internet celebrities aren’t often overly particular about accepting good money to endorse suspect products. In the Instagram meme influencers, the former mayor seems to have found a kindred spirit of attention economy capitalists. “I would be down — bread is bread,” a teenager who runs the meme page @BigDadWhip, told the Time’s Taylor Lorenz when asked about posting sponsored content on behalf of the candidate.

On Twitter, where some Democratic hopefuls have adopted a “they go low, we go high” mentality, Bloombergians have instead opted to wade into the mud and wrestle with Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed. The strategy plays up controversy at every available opportunity to generate attention.

After news broke that the president mocked Mr. Bloomberg’s height in a Super Bowl interview with Sean Hannity, the Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman Julie Wood fired back with a Trumpian line of her own: “The president is lying. He is a pathological liar who lies about everything: his fake hair, his obesity, and his spray-on tan.”

The back and forth generated a medium-size controversy and news cycle of its own, the subtext of which was Mr. Bloomberg as a worthy sparring partner for Mr. Trump. Tweets and cable chyrons flashed with the former mayor’s name. Earned media. Mission accomplished.

What the Bloomberg campaign seems to have bought into is that, when you lean into the potent combination of content creation and shamelessness, any reaction it provokes is a good reaction. This strategy provides a certain amount of freedom to a candidate when you don’t care what people think of you — as long as they’re thinking of you.

Take Mr. Bloomberg’s brazen spending, which has prompted claims that he’s an oligarch trying to bypass democracy by buying the presidency. Plenty of candidates would get defensive at such speculation. Mr. Bloomberg is unfazed. Who cares?! At least he’s in the conversation. More than that, the conversation is now centered around the idea that he could very well win.

The whole thing sounds Trumpian because it is. The Trump campaign was unabashed in 2016 and beyond about its plan to “flood the zone” with garbage or ragebait. The strategy worked in part because it engaged and energized his base. And, as Sean Illing detailed recently at Vox, it exploited a media ecosystem that is built to give attention to lies (in order to debunk them) and outlandishness (because it’s entertaining or newsworthy).

What remains to be seen is how Mr. Bloomberg will handle criticism in the fight for attention. The president could punch back at critics — high or low — since he’s unencumbered by either shame or decency. Trump supporters love him because cruelty is the point. But Mr. Bloomberg won’t be able to mock critics of his beloved stop-and-frisk policies (for which he recently apologized), for instance. Unlike Mr. Trump, there are lines Mr. Bloomberg will most likely not cross.

Other Democratic candidates have tried to apply Mr. Trump’s media hacking lessons — “I would be lying if I said I hadn’t studied some of his approach with the media and what worked, what didn’t work,” Lis Smith, a top adviser to Pete Buttigieg, recently admitted. But few are able to replicate the tactics. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez runs a similar playbook online, but hers is far more genuine — the product of being a millennial who is innately very good at social media and who also happens to be a congresswoman.

The Bloomberg campaign is far less organic. This week’s Instagram meme campaign is a great example. Though it was a shameless attempt on behalf of the 77-year-old billionaire to buy off teenage influencers, the campaign perfectly exploited attention by being inscrutable. “It’s the most successful ad that I’ve ever posted,” one of the influencers told the Times. “I think a lot of it came from people being confused whether or not it was real.”Release some memes. Sow some light chaos in the timeline. Send reporters on a wild-goose chase. Meanwhile, this happens:

Who cares about inorganic motives if the attention they generate is very organic?

The strategy is, as we’re seeing, politically effective. Just ask Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor. Mr. Patrick and Mr. Bloomberg announced their campaigns around the same time. They have fairly comparable records of governing. One struggled to raise money, chose not to engage and faded into the depths of obscurity. The other, the one with the war chest and shamelessness, is still in the race.

Attention is like television airtime in a battleground state: There’s a finite amount of it. For Democrats whose prime interest is defeating Donald Trump at all costs, this is exciting. But the strategy is also deeply cynical, exhausting and potentially damaging for those of us left to consume it. For citizens looking for a movement or big, structural change or even just a genuine vision for the future of the country, the strategy is disheartening — just another brazen attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator instincts of the internet that leaves a sinking feeling that shameless memes, Twitter dunks and toxic screaming into the algorithmic void have become politics as usual.

Or maybe it’s always been this way. After all, what is politics if not a long, well-funded attempt at hacking people’s attention?

Click to see and read Mr. Warzel’s New York Times – Opinion article.

Requiem for a Dream (essay-29)

February 7, 2020 commentary

Friday, January 31, 2020
Word Count – 1184

Britain exits Europe. It will be poorer, above all in its shriveled heart.

By Roger Cohen
Opinion Columnist

I have covered many stories that marked me over the past 40 years, in war zones and outside them, but none that has affected me as personally as Britain’s exit from the European Union. Brexit Day, now upon us, feels like the end of hope, a moral collapse, a self-amputation that will make the country where I grew up poorer in every sense.

Poorer materially, of course, but above all poorer in its shriveled soul, divorced from its neighborhood, internally fractured, smaller, meaner, more insular, more alone, no longer a protagonist in the great miracle of the postwar years — Europe’s journey toward borderless peace and union. Britain, in a fit of deluded jingoism, has opted for littleness.

The fiasco was captured this week when that pompous and pitiful British nationalist, Nigel Farage, waved a miniature Union Jack in the European Parliament as he bid farewell and was cut off by the vice-president of the Parliament, Mairead McGuinness. “Put your flags away, you’re leaving, and take them with you,” she said.

Farage looked like a sheepish schoolboy caught breaking rules. He blushed. An Irish woman from a country uplifted by European Union membership reprimanding the new breed of little-England male as he exits history in pursuit of an illusion: the symbolism was perfect. “Hip, hip hooray!” Farage’s flag-waving Brexit Party cohorts chanted. Save me, please, for I shall weep.

Speaking of symbolism, the fact that President Trump has been a fulsome supporter of this folly is apt. An ahistorical, amoral American leader cheering on a British abdication sums up the end of an era. The world was rebuilt after 1945 on something of more substance than British-American lies and bloviation; it took resolve. The torch has passed. To whom exactly is unclear, perhaps to a country slow to contain a plague. That is a problem.

Brexit belongs to this era in one quintessential way. It is an act of the imagination, inspired by an imaginary past, carried along by misdirected grievances, borne aloft by an imaginary future. The age of impunity is also the age of illusion turbocharged by social media.

Inequality, poor infrastructure, low investment, inadequate schools are real British problems but the take-back-your-country transference of blame for them onto “Brussels bureaucrats” proved that the imagination now overwhelms reality. Truth withers. The mob roars. This, too, is a problem.

Yes, Britain was undefeated in World War II and helped liberate Europe. But it could do so only with its allies; and it was precisely to secure what it is now turning its back on: a free Europe offering its people the “simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.” Those are Churchill’s words in 1946 in a speech that also contained this phrase: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” Unbowed Britain was once consequential Britain; no longer.

I used the word “abdication” advisedly. Europe needs the great tradition of British liberalism at a moment when Hungary and Poland have veered toward nationalism and, across the Continent, xenophobic hatred is resurgent. It is perverse for Britain to try to look away. Europe is part of Britain. Visit the great Norman monasteries in England and tell me this is not so. The British dead who lie in the Continent’s soil having given their lives for its liberty tell the same story of interlaced fate from a different perspective.

To be so orphaned is painful. The 47 years of British membership cover the entire arc of my adult life. Europa was our dream. I covered Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, speaking to the European Parliament about hope and peace in 1981, eight months before his assassination. So much for dreams.

Yet they persist, for otherwise life is unlivable. I wandered from Brussels to Rome to Paris to Berlin to London and everywhere I lived I experienced some iteration of Europe’s beauty, as a physical thing, as a cultural bond and as a transformative idea.

The sensation was most acute in Germany, where the idea of the union was the most effective escape from postwar shame and the rubble of 1945, a form of atonement. But it was ubiquitous, the guarantor of our deliverance and the symbol of our capacity to reinvent the world and even make it better.

Every European country, through the goal of ever closer union, changed itself. They grew richer, no small thing. But they also reframed their self-image.

Italy and Spain left Mussolini and Franco behind to become stable, prosperous democracies. France found its tortuous way to truth after the humiliations and predations of Vichy and discovered a European avenue to express once more its universal message of human rights founded on human dignity.

Central European countries stabilized their escape from the deadening Soviet imperium to which Yalta had confined them. Britain ceased equating Europe with scourges like intellectuals, rabies and garlic, as it had in my childhood. Hyde Park became a babble of European tongues. The British economy surged. Britain had given up its colonies and found a new identity in association with Europe, or so it seemed, flickeringly.

Then I lived in Sarajevo covering the Bosnian war and I saw, in inert bodies torn by shrapnel, and in history revived as galvanizing myth of might and conquest, the horror from which the European Union had saved my generation. It had laid bad history to rest. That was enough to be forever a European patriot.

But not enough for the British a quarter-century later. In the words of my friend Ed Vulliamy, who also covered that war, Britain has become a country “that boards cheap flights for stag outings to piss all over Krakow.”

Hip, hip hooray!

When I lived in Berlin, I would cross the nearby Polish border and never failed to marvel that where millions had perished decades earlier a nonexistent frontier traced its invisible line across fields of wheat. I would pass from the German world to the lands of the Slavs and nobody asked me who I was, what papers I bore or what was my intent.

If German-Polish reconciliation has been possible, anything is possible, my only solace at this moment. A bunch of flag-waving fantasists, at the wrong end of actuarial tables, have robbed British youth of the Europe they embrace. They will be looking on as 450 million Europeans across the way forge their fate. Their automatic right to live and work anywhere from Lisbon to Stockholm will be lost.

I’ve lost a limb; more than a limb, my heart. Europe helped Britain grow bigger and more open and more prosperous. Now it will shrink. Another suffering friend, Patrick Wintour, the diplomatic editor of The Guardian, sent me these lines of Auden:

In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark,

And the living nations wait,

Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace

Stares from every human face,

And the seas of pity lie

Locked and frozen in each eye.

A better epitaph for the aborted story of Britain in Europe and the tragedy of a disoriented nation’s willful infliction of enduring self-harm is impossible to imagine.

Link to New York Times article – Requiem for a Dream

Trump’s Election May Have Benn the Shock We Needed (essay-28)

November 25, 2019 commentary

Monday, November 25, 2019
Word Count – 1632


American political history suggests that an age of renewal lies ahead.

By Lee Drutman
Mr. Drutman is the author of the forthcoming “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”

As impeachment mania grips Washington, it is easy to descend into an ever-deepening political pessimism. But as odd as it may seem, for the first time in years, I’m optimistic about the future of American democracy. It might be because I’ve been reading more history and less news. And from the long arc of American political history, I see the bright flashing arrows of a new age of reform and renewal ahead.

Eras of reform follow a general pattern. First, a mood of impending crisis prevails. Unfairness and inequality feel overwhelming, and national politics feels stuck and unresponsive to growing demands. But beneath the shattered yet still stubborn national stasis, new social movements organize. Politics becomes exciting and full of moral energy. New writers, empowered by new forms of media, invent new narratives. And future-oriented politicians emerge to channel that energy and challenge the old establishment.

America has gone through periodic eras of political reform, every 60 years or so. The Revolutionary War; the Age of Jackson; the Progressive Era; the civil rights movement. In each era, the old rules of politics changed, the old centers of politics collapsed, and American democracy became a little more participatory and inclusive.

Of the reform periods, the Progressive Era holds the clearest parallels to ours. In the 1890s, inequality, partisanship and discontent were all sky-high. The depression of 1893-97 shattered faith that a growing industrial economy would lift all boats. New leviathan railroad and public-utility corporations seemed imposingly powerful, and partisan politics seemed thoroughly corrupted by them. Mass immigration was changing the face of the nation.

As public dissatisfaction built, and pressure grew from multiple directions, the political system eventually responded, led by a new generation of reform-oriented activists and politicians. New forms of participatory democracy — the primary, direct elections for the Senate, the initiative and the referendum — reshaped a political system that seemed to privilege the few over the many.

Women achieved the right to vote, first in cities and states, then finally nationwide in 1920. New regulatory agencies wrestled with the size and scope of giant corporate enterprises, cutting some down to size, putting stricter boundaries on others. But even as late as 1902, it was far from obvious that the years ahead would bring so much change.

A crucial Progressive Era lesson for today is that reform had no obvious order, and there was no one unified progressive movement — only a long list of social movements that sometimes made common causes and sometimes bitterly disagreed and often worked separately. Populist farmers caught in debt mobilized against the railroads. Liberal professional-class cosmopolitans grew disgusted with urban graft and devoted themselves to good-government municipal reforms. Many efforts suffered repeated setbacks before making progress. For example, women’s suffrage faced many battles before it eventually passed. In short: don’t plan too much, build coalitions opportunistically, and don’t give up.

Nor was there one leader, or even one political party, that drove change. A menagerie of ambitious politicians fused together different platforms and programs, and fought over fundamental issues: How much should rest on direct as opposed to representative democracy? Was it better to break up big companies, or just strengthen the ability of government to regulate them? Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, Woodrow Wilson and the coalitions backing them all had different ideas. Reform was incoherent and chaotic. It is inherently experimental — new problems demand new solutions. In short: Don’t expect one politician or one reform to hold all the answers.

The Progressive Era left a mixed record, largely because progressives were too hostile to political parties as crucial engines of political engagement and overly optimistic about the power of independent, rational judgment. But the era’s reforms solved a particular problem of corrupt, top-down power at a particular moment. Each reformist movement can be expected only to resolve its most pressing problems in a way that keeps democracy going for a future era of reform

When future historians look back on the 2010s, they will observe three larger trends that paved the way for a new era of reform by clearing away the old consensus: a loss of faith in “neoliberal” economics, the breakdown of white male-dominated social and cultural hierarchies, and the collapse of the “normal” political process.

The financial crisis of 2008-09 and the decades-long stagnation of middle-class wages shattered the neoliberal faith that loosely regulated markets naturally bring widespread prosperity. In the last decade, leaders in both parties have turned (rhetorically, at least) against the global trade and financial system, mouthing the frustrations of voters.

The new tech giants now wield a kind of power as the central nodes of commerce and information that we haven’t seen since the railroads of the Gilded Age. For most Americans, the economy feels unfair. Capitalism has lost its luster, particularly for younger Americans. As in the Progressive Era, corporate domination and corruption are widely agreed to be a problem.

On the changing social and cultural order, both Me Too and Black Lives Matter represent profound and emblematic new social movements not just because they spotlighted and remedied longstanding injustices. They are also profound because they show how new technology and new forms of media have upended traditional power relationships by amplifying previously marginalized stories. For instance, the number of women, and particularly women of color, running for (and winning) public office has increased significantly over the last few years.

These cultural changes have provoked a backlash that contributed to Donald Trump’s rise and the associated growth of alt-right movements. Fights over identity now define national partisan competition because they echo and reinforce fundamental divides in the ethnic and geographical coalitions of the two major parties and amplify the zero-sum stakes of two-party electoral conflict. The unceasing culture war is a battle over two very different and diverging visions.

On the political system itself: The conflicts over economics and culture are intimately tied to declining faith in politics as usual and the growing distrust of government. But in a politics oriented around zero-sum questions of national identity, and with razor’s edge control of Congress constantly at stake, compromise equates to surrender.

Close two-party politics is a recipe for nasty two-party politics. Our government is not working under this strain because it was designed to prevent narrow majoritarian politics and instead demand broad compromise. But the good news is that dysfunction is the precursor to reform. The breakdown of norms has an upside — it’s possible to put new, fairer norms in place of old, broken ones. Presidential candidates now talk about structural reform, like the abolishing the Electoral College and adding judges to the Supreme Court and even adding states to change the balance of power in the Senate.

In short, in each area — economic, cultural, political — whatever once passed for an old consensus is gone. The range of the possible has expanded greatly in the past decade, and in many directions.

The history of American democratic reform has been on balance progressive. In each era, reformers achieved at least some of their goals, and new political and economic rules tamed the most striking injustices, at least for a while.

But history never repeats itself perfectly. And we’ve never quite had a president as defiant and hostile as Donald Trump before. The hyperpolarization that powered and sustains Mr. Trump is the first and essential challenge a coming era of reform must solve. Left to escalate further, the current partisan ratchet of constitutional hardball will break our democracy.

But here’s why I’m ultimately optimistic: I see how much the election of Mr. Trump acted as an impetus for people who care about democracy to get involved. The 2018 election registered the highest turnout midterm election in 104 years, and the smart money is on a similarly high turnout election in 2020. It may sound strange to say, but Mr. Trump’s election may yet turn out to be the shock and near-death experience that American political system needed to right itself.

I’m also optimistic because the one reform with the most potential to break our zero-sum partisanship, ranked-choice voting, is gaining tremendous momentum at the state and local level. In 2018, Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting for federal elections (after Mainers approved it in two statewide referendums). This month, New York City voters adopted it. Also in 2020, expect voters in Alaska and Massachusetts to decide whether they want in on ranked-choice voting.

By removing the spoiler effect of third parties, ranked-choice voting can break the us-versus-them force driving our partisan warfare, and create space for a political realignment that creates new coalitions to shape economic reforms and negotiate social change.

When political conditions become intolerable, people eventually stop tolerating them. And when old rules and power structures crumble, new ones emerge. Now is the time to participate. Get involved in a cause you believe in, and join a campaign to enact reform in your city or your state (national reform always starts at the state and local level).

As with each era of reform, we’ll get some things right and some things wrong. We’ll overcorrect for some past mistakes, and make some new ones. But democracy isn’t something to perfect or solve. It’s a continuing, improbable experiment in self-governance, of devilish scale and complexity. We’re still learning.

The above appeared in the New York Times on Monday, November 25, 2019.

Why People Hate Religion (essay-27)

August 30, 2019 commentary

Friday, August 30, 2019
Word Count – 898

The charlatans and phonies preen and punish, while those of real faith do Christ’s work among refugees.

By Timothy Egan
Contributing Opinion Writer

You don’t hear much about Sister Norma Pimentel in the secular press. She’s not a wacko, a hypocrite, a sexual predator or a political operative. Her life’s work, she says, is guided by seeing “the presence of God” in migrant children in the shelter she oversees in the Rio Grande Valley — vulnerable souls that her president would otherwise put in cages.

What you hear about is the phonies, the charlatans who wave Bibles, the theatrically pious, and they are legion. Vice President Mike Pence wears his faith like a fluorescent orange vest. But when he visited the border this summer and saw human beings crammed like cordwood in the Texas heat, that faith was invisible.

“Trump Orders Pence to Find Passage in Bible Where Jesus Tells People to Get the Hell Out.” Though a satirical headline, from the comic writer Andy Borowitz, the above could pass for any day in Trump world.

Pence is the chief bootlicker to a president who now sees himself in messianic terms, a president who tweets a description of himself as “the second coming of God.” As hard as it is to see God Part II boasting about grabbing a woman’s genitals, paying hush money to a porn actress, or calling neo-Nazis “very fine people,” millions of overtly religious Americans believe in some version of Jesus Trump, Superstar.

What you hear about are the modern Savonarolas. In Indiana this summer, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson stripped a Jesuit prep school of its Catholic identity for refusing to fire a gay, married teacher. The same threat loomed over another Indianapolis school, until it ousted a beloved teacher with 13 years of service. He was fired for getting married to another man — a legal, civil action.

The archbishop claimed he was upholding Catholic teaching, an example of the kind of selective moral policing that infuriates good people of faith.

Catholic teaching also frowns on divorce. But when a divorced teacher, at the same school where the gay teacher was fired, remarried without a church-sanctioned annulment and posted her status on Facebook as a dare, the archbishop did nothing. For this is a road that leads to thrice-married, politically connected Catholics like Newt Gingrich, whose wife Callista (with whom Gingrich carried on an adulterous affair before getting married) is now Donald Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican.

Archbishop Thompson says he tries to be “Christ-centered” in his decisions. If so, he should cite words from Christ condemning homosexuality, any words; there are none. That may be one reason a healthy majority of Catholics are in favor of same-sex marriage, despite what their spiritual sentries tell them.

Religious hypocrites are an easy and eternal mark. The French Revolution was driven in part by the revulsion of starving peasants toward the overfed clerics who had taken vows of poverty. The Protestant Reformation took flight on disgust at a church in Rome that sold passages to heaven, enriching men who had multiple mistresses after taking vows of chastity.

White evangelical Christians, the rotting core of Trump’s base, profess to be guided by biblical imperatives. They’re not. Their religion is Play-Doh. They have become more like Trump, not the other way around. It’s a devil’s pact, to use words they would understand.

In one of the most explicit passages of the New Testament, Christ says people will be judged by how they treat the hungry, the poor, the least among us. And yet, only 25 percent of white evangelicals say their country has some responsibility to take in refugees.

Evangelicals give cover to an amoral president because they believe God is using him to advance their causes. “There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump,” said Ralph Reed at a meeting of professed Christian activists earlier this summer.

But what really thrills them is when Trump bullies and belittles their opponents, as counterintuitive as that may seem. Evangelicals “love the meanest parts” of Trump, the Christian writer Ben Howe argues in his new book, “The Immoral Majority.” Older white Christians rouse to Trump’s toxicity because he’s taking their side. It’s tribal, primal and vindictive.

So, yes, people hate religion when the loudest proponents of religion are shown to be mercenaries for a leader who debases everything he touches. And yes, young people are leaving the pews in droves because too often the person facing them in those pews is a fraud.

They hate religion because, at a moment to stand up and be counted on the right side of history, religion is used as moral cover for despicable behavior. This is not new to our age. Hitler got a pass from the Vatican until very late in the war.

Still, we are “prisoners of hope,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu loves to say. And if you’re looking for hope in the midnight of the American soul, look no further than Sister Pimentel’s shelter for hundreds of desperate children in McAllen, Texas.

Growing up, Sister Pimentel was going to be an artist, she says, until she felt a strong tug on her soul; it compelled her to a lifetime of selfless service. Faith is not that complicated. Religion always is

1 Why People Hate Religion  Timothy Egan – Contributing Opinion Writer –   New York Times, August 30, 2019

Trump, Taxes and Terrorism (essay-26)

August 5, 2019 commentary

Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Word Count – 828

Why do Republicans enable right-wing extremism? 1

By Paul Krugman

Why has the Republican Party become a systematic enabler of terrorism?

Don’t pretend to be shocked. Just look at G.O.P. responses to the massacre in El Paso. They have ranged from the ludicrous (blame video games!) to the almost honest (who would have expected Ted Cruz, of all people, to speak out against white supremacy?). But as far as I can tell, not one prominent Republican has even hinted at the obvious link between Donald Trump’s repeated incitements to violence and the upsurge in hate crimes.

So the party remains in lock step behind a man who has arguably done more to promote racial violence than any American since Nathan Bedford Forrest, who helped found the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization if there ever was one — and who was recently honored by the Republican governor of Tennessee.

Anyway, the party’s complicity started long before Trump came on the scene. More than a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a surge of right-wing extremism. The report was prescient, to say the least. But when congressional Republicans learned about it, they went on a rampage, demanding the resignation of Janet Napolitano, who headed the agency, and insisted that even using the term “right-wing extremism” was unacceptable.

This backlash was effective: Homeland Security drastically scaled back its efforts to monitor and head off what was already becoming a major threat. In effect, Republicans bullied law enforcement into creating a safe space for potential terrorists, as long as their violent impulses were motivated by the right kind of hatred.

But why did they do that? Is the G.O.P. now a party of white nationalists?

No, not exactly. No doubt some members of Congress, and a significant number of Trump administration officials, very much including the tweeter in chief, really are white supremacists. And a much larger fraction — almost surely bigger than anyone wants to admit — are racists. (Recently released tapes of conversations between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon reveal that the modern G.O.P.’s patron saint was, in fact, a crude racist who called Africans “monkeys.”)

But racism isn’t what drives the Republican establishment, and my guess is that a majority of the party’s elected officials find it a little bit repugnant — just not repugnant enough to induce them to repudiate its political exploitation. And their exploitation of racism has led them inexorably to where they are today: de facto enablers of a wave of white supremacist terrorism.

The central story of U.S. politics since the 1970s is the takeover of the Republican Party by economic radicals, determined to slash taxes for the wealthy while undermining the social safety net.

With the arguable exception of George H.W. Bush, every Republican president since 1980 has pushed through tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the 1 percent while trying to defund and/or privatize key social programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

This agenda is, however, unpopular. Most voters believe that the rich should pay more, not less, in taxes, and want spending on social programs to rise, not fall.

So how do Republicans win elections? By appealing to racial animus. This is such an obvious fact of American political life that you have to be willfully blind not to see it.

For a long time, the G.O.P. establishment was able to keep this game under control. It would campaign using implicit appeals to racial hostility (welfare queens! Willie Horton!) but turn postelection to privatization and tax cuts.

But for some reason this bait-and-switch started getting less effective in the 2000s. Maybe it was the reality of America’s growing racial diversity; maybe it was the fact that American society as a whole was becoming less racist, leaving the hard-core racists feeling isolated and frustrated. And the election of our first black president really kicked hatred into overdrive.

The result is that there are more and more angry white people out there willing to commit mayhem — and able to do so because those same Republicans have blocked any effective control over sales of assault weapons.

A different, better G.O.P. might have been willing to acknowledge the growing threat and supported a crackdown on violent right-wing extremism, comparable to the F.B.I.’s successful campaign against the modern K.K.K. in the 1960s. A lot of innocent victims would be alive today if Republicans had done so.

But they didn’t, because admitting that right-wing extremism was a threat, or even a phrase law enforcement should be allowed to use, might have threatened the party’s exploitation of racial hostility to achieve its economic goals.

In effect, then, the Republican Party decided that a few massacres were an acceptable price to pay in return for tax cuts. I wish that were hyperbole, but the continuing refusal of G.O.P. figures to criticize Trump even after El Paso shows that it’s the literal truth.

So as I said at the beginning, the G.O.P. has become a systematic enabler of terrorism. Why? Follow the money.

1 Trump, Taxes and Terrorism Paul Krugman – Opinion Columnist

2 Cartoon by Nate Beeler for Counterpoint, Edition No. 9, August 6, 2019

He Caught On With Voters, However They Say His Name (essay-25)

March 29, 2019 commentary

Friday, March 29, 2019
Word Count – 1,379

       

By Trip Gabriel
• March 28, 2019
ROCK HILL, S.C. — Somewhere between Pete Buttigieg being mistaken for a teenager making a promposal, and answering a question in Norwegian, and proclaiming that it was millennials’ turn to lead “at the highest level,” South Carolina got a crash course in a new Democratic celebrity.

Mr. Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., drew large, enthusiastic crowds in his first campaign visit to the early-voting state over the weekend. That followed a series of well-received appearances on national TV, which have helped fuel his new popularity: An Iowa poll on Monday showed him jumping to third place in the 2020 caucus race, and a Quinnipiac national poll on Thursday showed him rising to fifth and tied with Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“This was supposed to be a little meet-and-greet Q. and A.,” he told hundreds of people in a college gym in Rock Hill, after his event was bumped from the library to accommodate a wave of RSVPs.

Many Democrats have drawn impressive crowds early this presidential cycle, a reflection of Democrats’ pent-up desire to defeat President Trump. But Mr. Buttigieg, a Rhodes scholar and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was largely an afterthought in a field of much better-known hopefuls. His national TV appearances built on an online following he developed with detailed, earnest and sometimes personal answers at events in Iowa and New Hampshire this winter, and his outside-the-box progressive stands on some policies.

After a 40-minute CNN town hall on March 10, a surge of donations led him to crack the threshold of 65,000 donors to qualify for the first Democratic debates in June. The Emerson Poll in Iowa showed Mr. Buttigieg hurtling to third place, behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders — up from a January poll that showed him at zero. (The poll’s margin of error for the Democratic caucus was plus or minus 6.2 percentage points.)

At a check-in table in South Carolina, a sign clarified a question still hovering over the candidate: “It’s Boot-edge-edge,” it read.

Ideologically, Mr. Buttigieg is a progressive — sometimes an adventurous one, calling to expand the Supreme Court and abolish the Electoral College. But his main themes are generational change and winning back Rust Belt voters who supported Mr. Trump.

“I think there’s still an attitude in some parts of the party that what we have to do is find the final proof that Trump’s a bad guy and show it to everybody,” Mr. Buttigieg said in an interview. “What it misses is there’s a lot of people where I live who were under no illusions about his character. They already get that he’s a bad guy, but they made a decision with their eyes open to vote to burn the house down.”

Mr. Buttigieg’s prescription for winning back the white working class is hardly revolutionary: He emphasizes traditional Democratic priorities like health care and education, while assuring voters without a college degree that they can thrive in a changing economy, rather than promising a restoration of the past.

In South Bend, a city that was in long decline after Studebaker shut its auto plant in the 1960s, Mr. Buttigieg bulldozed vacant buildings and invested in infrastructure, which led to a revived downtown and a stabilizing population after decades of flight.

Mr. Buttigieg, who is openly gay and married, is the first to admit his candidacy is a long shot.

His friend David Axelrod, the former political strategist to President Barack Obama, called it a “way, way uphill battle,’’ adding: “One of the realities is that he is a new-generation candidate and now Beto O’Rourke is in the race, and Beto fills a lot of space. They’re fishing in the same pond, and Beto has a larger fishing pole.”

In the interview, Mr. Buttigieg declined to contrast himself with Mr. O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, who is a decade older. The closest he came was a possible backhand dig when asked how the mayor of a city that ranks 299th in size is qualified to step into the Oval Office.

“If I were the 299th most important member of Congress, I’m not sure I’d be getting that question,” he said.

Aaron Olson, 40, a voter who heard Mr. O’Rourke the day before attending a Buttigieg appearance in Columbia, said Mr. Buttigieg was more policy-grounded than Mr. O’Rourke, who admits to working things out in real time.

“I think Pete Buttigieg is more down to brass tacks,” Mr. Olson said. “He’s more calm and reasoned. I think Beto has a dance track going in his head when he’s speaking.”

Mr. Buttigieg likes to say that as a two-term mayor, he has more executive government experience than either Mr. Trump or Vice President Mike Pence had on taking office. The contrast with socially conservative Mr. Pence, a former Indiana governor, comes easily to Mr. Buttigieg; on CNN, he wondered how Mr. Pence became “the cheerleader of the porn-star presidency.”

In 2015, Mr. Pence championed a “religious freedom” law that critics said let businesses discriminate against gays and lesbians, in the same year that Mr. Buttigieg came out as gay as he was seeking re-election. The fact that he won with 80 percent of the vote encourages Mr. Buttigieg about his prospects in the primary.

Still, if he becomes his party’s nominee, he would test whether Americans are ready for a president holding hands with his husband in the White House Rose Garden.

“Well there’s one way to find out for sure,” said Mr. Buttigieg, who married the former Chasten Glezman, a schoolteacher, last year.

At rallies Mr. Buttigieg’s framing of his sexual orientation plays to Americans’ embrace of strong families and equality, and it is one of his biggest applause lines.

He recalls how his husband was at the bedside of Mr. Buttigieg’s mother when she needed triple bypass surgery. “He could be there in the hospital because in the eyes of the law, just as in my heart, he is a member of my family,” Mr. Buttigieg said in Rock Hill.

Voters at his rallies said his sexual orientation was either a nonissue or perhaps an asset that helps him empathize with other groups that have faced discrimination.

“There isn’t anybody in the United States that doesn’t have a relative or a friend who is of that persuasion,” said Mary Darr, 86, who had driven from Georgia to hear him. “It doesn’t make any difference.”

Mr. Buttigieg, whose father emigrated from Malta, is the son of two former Notre Dame professors. His resume is comically overstuffed. In high school he won a national essay contest (about Senator Bernie Sanders, no less) that led to an internship with Senator Ted Kennedy.

After notching degrees from Harvard and Oxford, and a stint as a McKinsey consultant, he returned to his economically battered hometown to be elected, at 29, the youngest mayor of a midsize American city. He took a seven-month leave for active duty as a Navy Reserves lieutenant in Afghanistan.

Somewhere along the way he taught himself to read a favorite author in Norwegian, which is how journalists from Norwegian media turned up in South Carolina to ask him questions in their own tongue.

The crowds at his South Carolina events featured as many voters with gray hair as millennials. The impression that he might be in need of a prom date came Saturday morning when he was door knocking with a young female statehouse candidate and passing teenagers asked if they were making a “promposal video.”

In a state where 60 percent of Democratic primary voters are black, there were not many African-Americans in Mr. Buttitgieg’s crowds, even at historically black Clinton College, where he packed the gym in Rock Hill.

“I like Mayor Pete, I think he has tremendous potential,” said Anita Nelam, a black Democratic activist in Columbia. She said Mr. Biden was her favorite, an endorsement pinned on her Twitter feed. “But I don’t know what Joe Biden is doing,” she said. “I think having somebody from the Midwest is going to make a big difference for the Democrats.”

“What Joe and Mayor Pete bring to the party is someone who could speak to those folks in a way they can be heard.”

1 Trip Gabriel, “Pete Buttigieg (It’s ‘Boot-Edge-Edge’) Is Making Waves in the 2020 Race,” New York Times, March 29, 2019

Shame (essay-24)

February 18, 2019 commentary

Monday, February 18, 2019
Word Count – 885

      

Finding Parents’ MAGA Hats
Will One Day Be Equivalent of
Discovering Their Ku Klux Klan Hood
 1

The “Make America Great Again Hats” synonymous with supporters of President Donald Trump will one day carry the same shame as the uniforms worn by the Ku Klux Klan, according to scholar and Washington Post columnist Matt Sears.

In a conversation with Salon published Sunday, the long-time Trump critic said the caps would be a shameful secret for Trump supporters in future that relatives would look down upon.

Sears was responding to a question posed by Salon reporter Chauncey DeVega, who asked whether Trump merchandise would in future be thought of in the same way as Nazi paraphernalia now.

“I think it’s similar. But I think a better analogy would be like finding a Ku Klux Klan hood or robe,” Sears replied. “I’ve made the comparison before. Every time I watch a documentary about the civil rights movement and all the hateful violence they faced I wonder what the white people who were doing those horrible things were thinking. What was going through their minds?”

“We are living in an era with Donald Trump and the Republican Party and the right-wing movement in America where things of similar gravity are happening,” he added. “It’s our job to not be the people who stand by idly and let mobs harass black kids who in an earlier era not too long ago were trying to go to newly desegregated schools.”

“In a few generations from now, finding a MAGA hat in your grandparents’ closet would be like seeing your grandfather’s or grandmother’s face in one of those lunch counter photos, harassing the black people who are trying to fight Jim Crow and win their equal human rights.”

Sears is not the first to have made comparisons between Trump merchandise and Ku Klux Klan uniforms. Actor Alyssa Milano drew the fury of conservatives last month when she declared the MAGA hat to be “the new white hood.”

Milano was reacting to the emergence of a video showing a group of MAGA cap-wearing students from Covington Catholic High School apparently harassing a Native American man at a rally in Washington, D.C. More footage later emerged casting doubt on the media’s initial interpretation of events.

Speaking with Salon, Sears repeated his past criticism of MAGA hats and their users, stressing that the merchandise denotes a very specific set of intolerant ideas, of which Trump supporters are well aware.

This is a lesson we need to consider when looking at the Washington incident. That the boys were wearing MAGA hats and other Trump apparel — and allowed (if not encouraged) by their chaperones to do so while at the March for Life — constitutes a deliberate political act and a deliberate provocation. In our current context, it is impossible to separate the MAGA symbol from anti-immigrant and anti-minority views and policies. After all, what could “make America great again” mean other than returning America to its “ancestral constitution,” in which those like Phillips didn’t have a voice?

Will we ever agree on what exactly happened on the Mall last week? Probably not. But by proudly displaying their MAGA hats, the boys of Covington Catholic presented themselves as embracing a set of exclusionary ideas. It is absolutely fair and rational to take their own self-presentation seriously. 2

“The entire sentiment of ‘Make America Great Again’ implies that there was a time when America was great and it’s not any longer,” he said. “If you look at the reasons that Trump and his movement actually believe (and often explicitly say) that American is not great any longer, it’s because there’s now too many non-white immigrants.”

“America for Trump and his supporters is no longer great because black people have too many rights or there are too many women in the workplace.”

“Trump and his MAGA hats and slogans and policies are also connected to things like the Muslim ban, building the wall, calling Mexicans rapists and saying the terrorists are crossing into the border among these caravans from Guatemala,” Sears continued. “The obvious conclusion is hard to escape. It takes a certain kind of willful denial and willful ignorance to wear a MAGA hat and assume that you’re not conveying all those values and beliefs.”

“I hope there is a future in which the MAGA hat is looked down upon and that political and social matters in this country do not worsen and escalate,” Sears concluded.

Some conservative commentators have defended the MAGA hats against suggestions they have become a symbol of hatred. In January, Fox News host Laura Ingraham said the association has been conjured up by the Democratic Party and the media “to brand an entire belief system as immoral, evil, toxic, and of course it’s racist.”

Ingraham called on Trump supporters to keep wearing their hats, and while doing so to “be sure to show everyone around you what true tolerance, kindness, and inclusiveness looks like.”

1 David Brennan, “Finding Parents’ MAGA Hats Will One Day Be Equivalent of Discovering Their “Ku Klux Klan Hood,” Says Professor,” Newsweek Magazine, 2/18/19.
2 Matthew A. Sears, “Why the decision to wear MAGA hats matters Political symbols signal political beliefs — and their usage can shape the course of history,”
Washington Post, January 25, 2019.

Ramblings (essay-23)

January 29, 2019 commentary

Wednesday, January 30, 2019
Word Count – 937

•  In the winter chill, making soup is comforting. Outside it’s dark and cloudy and the polar vortex promises to lock us all in, so I decided to take all the vegetables I had and make soup.

The chicken thighs were $4.99; the squash is from last year; the Savoy cabbage was slowly wilting in the crisper; the fresh fennel and leeks were recent purchases, but they’ll add a sweet side-flavor.

Drizzling olive oil on top of all the mingled flavors added a new taste. (The only ingredient that got lost in the mix was the garlic.) A crusty baguette, a savory soup – a seasonal dinner on a deep and dark mid-winter.

The pic was shot with the Nikon Ƶ 7 and no flash. What I like best is the light-source moving from left to right – the blue fading from light to dark.

•  Yesterday, I walked Walter Road from the parking lot at Ingram to the dog-park at Lakeshore Drive. It’s a 2.7 miles trek and the hill-road climbs almost 80 feet from the parking lot.

There are signs insisting that pedestrians are not welcomed on Walter Road, but I climb it regularly. It’s a better workout than the flats around the lake; also, it’s not isolated like Ridge Road, the other hill-road in the Park. The valley, the road climbs through, is open and its slopes silence the traffic.

Because there are no walking-lanes, I walk against traffic. I kept noticing that the men, shifted onto the incoming lane well before they got anywhere near me, but the women-drivers were almost on top of me before they switched lanes. What!!! Were they pissed I was walking a vehicle-only road? Were they pissed I was forcing them onto the incoming lane? Bet they were pissed I was making them complicit in my breaking of rules.

•  Another asshole billionaire is toying with running for president in 2020. And unlike the current Orange-Pcock (Pcock), this one talks anything but populist. He’s opposed to government-run, universal health-care, because it would put the health-care industry out of business and that it’s just Un-American. He also goes on about how expensive it would be to provide health-care for everyone. And still, he wraps himself in the cloak of I’m for ordinary Americans.

Cable news is all over this story, because nothing is coming out of the White House that warrants their flailing, sputtering reactions. And this self-delusional corporate Jack-in-the-box thinks that because he ran a coffee company, he can run the country. But in 21st century America, a red hat replaces the KKK hood, a wall becomes a holy symbol and billionaires believe their wealth is proof of talent.

 1

•  The longest-running government shutdown, cost the economy $11 billion, with $3 billion that will never be recovered. All because the Orange-Pcock wanted to show that his dick was bigger than Nancy Pelosi’s. An executive that has had a Republican Congress for two years, decided to test the new Democratic majority in the House by closing down the government until he got $5.7 billion for his wall. Never mind that 800,000 Federal employees and hundreds of thousands of sub-contractors would go without pay.

And after going 35 days and two missed paychecks, many federal-government workers were left lining up at food banks or filing for unemployment. It could take some households months to fully recover, especially families with government contractors, who won’t receive any back pay.

And yet, the Commerce Secretary couldn’t understand why Federal workers needed their paychecks. “You’re talking about 800,000 workers. . . . you’re talking about a third of a percent on our GDP.”

But the Marie Antoinette award goes to Pcock’s daughter-in-law. “Listen, it’s not fair to you, and we all get this, but this is so much bigger than any one person. It’s a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country.”

•  Back in November, I was visiting with Frank and we went to the newly opened Canada Goose store at the Yorkdale Mall. The place is chuck-full of luxury outlets and top-shelf shoppers.

After trudging to the opposite end of the mall, we found that we couldn’t walk into the store, instead we had to get in line. Neither of us could believe it. My first time ever standing in line to give away my money. Whoever came up with the idea of having customers stand in line, outside the store, is a marketing genius.

The line was full of Asians and Frank tried to strike up a conversation with the couple in front of us. The young woman was thoroughly disgusted with these two old men wanting to talk about standing in line. The boyfriend seemed to know to keep his mouth shut and look pretty.

Nineteen century Toronto had its pasty-white, snobby Brits. In the New Gilded Age, the old robber barons have been replaced by very rich Asians.

The flight home was also full of young Asians; I politely asked the person next to me if he was visiting Pittsburgh. He explained that there was a large number of Asians from Toronto who attend the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. Both schools have great reputations and are a 45 minutes plane-ride from home.

Well, since the mall-line and the Asian-Canadian (A-C) invasion, I’ve started paying attention to winter coats. Every time I’m in Oakland and I see an Asian student, I look to see if they’re wearing Canada Goose. And the red-white-and blue logo is everywhere. (My Pittsburgh friends don’t understand my A-C watch; they don’t know the Goose brand and don’t know its value, its status for hip, rich Canadians.)

1 Joyce Werwie Perry. “Mining in America – painted in memory of coal miners, Imperial Pennsylvania.” Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 2010.

A Lover’s Quarrel With the World (essay-22)

October 26, 2018 commentary

Friday, October 26, 2018
Word Count – 910

On Saturday, October 26, 1963
President John F. Kennedy
delivered the following speech at Amherst College.

This day, devoted to the memory of Robert Frost, offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians as well as by others and even by poets. For Robert Frost was one of the granite figures of our time in America. He was supremely two things: an artist and an American. A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.

In America our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this college and country honor a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit; not to our political beliefs but to our insight; not to our self-esteem but to our self-comprehension. In honoring Robert Frost we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. “I have been,” he wrote, “one acquainted with the night.” And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom he held a deep faith in the spirit of man. And it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement.

The artists, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet, in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeigh once remarked of poets, “There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style.”

In free society art is not a weapon, and it does not belong to the sphere of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man—the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, And nothing to look forward to with hope.”

I look forward to a great future for America—a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our national environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world, not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe, not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction

The Dying of the Light (essay-21)

May 4, 2018 commentary

Friday, May 4, 2018
Word Count – 378

When does the generational shift happen and the dominant group loses its place on center stage?

For me, the American political arena and its operatives are the players in a generational shift that is happening in prime-time. But the bright lights hide the real shift happening throughout the US and Canada.

At the local level, the shift is my parents’ age-group leaving the main stage. Old age and infirmities are forcing them into the wings into their living-rooms. And yet, this is the group that built modern Canada, post-war America. This is the group acculturated on the television and the telephone. (The television is on 24/7 and is the main focus of their living-room. My parents’ house has 8 land-line phones scattered throughout their house. There’s even a phone in their garage.)

What I haven’t understood before was that the age-group leaving center stage has a huge supporting cast. At the national level, these supporting players are represented by Trump and his supporters. And at the local level, they are the children, relatives and friends of the age-group leaving center stage. Making America Great Again is a call to another time, the time when our parents were the dominant adults; when our parents commanded all the attention; when they took up all the oxygen in the room. And in that long ago time, we were young and we loved our parents.

What Will Happen Next (essay-20)

February 16, 2018 commentary

Friday, February 16, 2018
Word Count – 378


WE KNOW

WHAT WILL

HAPPEN

NEXT

Parkland. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Newtown.
On and on: In America, mass shootings have become so familiar that they seem to follow the same sad script.

Nestor Ramos, Globe Staff
February 16, 2018

He will be a man, or maybe still a boy.

He will have a semiautomatic rifle — an AR-15, or something like it — and several high-capacity magazines filled with ammunition.

The weapon will have been purchased legally, the background check no obstacle.

He will walk into a school, or a concert, or an office building.

And he will open fire into a crowd of innocents.

Even as he’s still firing — crack crack crack — word will begin to spread. Survivors huddled in closets or behind bandstands will send pictures, text messages, and videos into a world that is again aghast.

Televisions will play the videos recorded amid the carnage, the sound somehow worse than the images. The fear in the victims’ voices will be familiar, yet too potent — a sound outside the boundaries of our own empathy.

We will hear about the heroes: Teachers who barricaded their classrooms or threw themselves between their students and the gunfire; concertgoers who shielded strangers as bullets plowed into their backs.

And we will hear about him: He was strange and troubled and cruel to animals; he’d shown signs of mental illness; he lost his job;
he beat his wife.

A chorus will rise to ask why anybody should own such a weapon, much less someone so obviously troubled; another chorus will accuse the first of politicizing tragedy. Some will point to the Second Amendment, and blame a lack of treatment for the mentally ill.

Politicians, and then the president, will emerge. Some will plead for new laws. More will ask only for thoughts and prayers.
Some will not mention guns at all.

Any promises will be broken. Beyond the shattered orbit of the school or church or concert that became a shooting gallery,
the whole thing will recede too soon into memory.

And then it will all happen again.

Whoever he is, he may already have the rifle. And he will follow the script.

So will we.

There are only three things we don’t know about the next time:

WHO, WHERE, AND HOW MANY?

Cartoon: Rob Rogers – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Friday, February 16, 2018
Commentary: Nestor Ramos – The Boston Globe – Friday, February 16, 2018

Love’s Illusions (essay-19)

October 6, 2017 commentary

Friday, October 10, 2017
Word Count – 491

    •     sundown, yellow moon
    •     i replay the past
    •     i know every scene by heart
    •     they all went by so fast 1
  •     The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. 2

First-love is an amazing experience. For the first time in our lives we can name the feelings, the emotions, the attractions. For the first time in our conscious mind we can wallow in lust, in obsession, in euphoria. Its breath warms synapses newly formed; its kiss whispers across dry lips; its words echo forevers. What an intoxicating time. No wonder we all want it back; no wonder we all believed nirvana was possible. But the exploding emotions were already in us, first-love just pulled them together and focused them onto the newly discovered beloved.

And when that amazing experience ends, its tendrils migrate into memory. And in memory, first-love becomes ephemeral, it becomes phantasm. It shimmers; its edges blend into sunset, into yellow moonlight, into shadow.

First-love belongs to another time, to another place, to another person. It happened in the past in a confined space to a lithe young man. It happened when we were bereft of baggage; when we were without guile, without jealousy, without fear. First-love was the spark that lit the emotional darkness.

But first-love will always be out-of-focus, because it’s swimming in the archives of memory.

There is a cultural definition of first-love that tells us it was the best, that it was the ultimate, and that all others will fall shot. There’s a strong suggestion that if first-love could be kept, we would have our heart’s desires; we would be forever happy; we would champion monogamy; we would celebrate faithfulness.

In the opera Nabucco, in the famous chorus – Va Pensiero – Verdi warns that memory is both dear and fatal – O, membranza, sì cara e fatal. And yet many of us have driven back into that foreign country of first love, into that land of raging lust and youthful obsession. Many of us tried to negotiate the space between the then and the now only to find an unbreachable chasm. Many of us tried to integrate that first-love into our present and found there was no fire to solder the joint. Many of us who’ve chased after the memory of first-love have come away bruised.

Because none of us realized that in our thirties, forties or fifties we were not the same people we were at the time of first-love. In our thirties, we had a crappy car and no bank account; in our forties, we had mortgages and children; and in our fifties, we have aches and pains and disappointments.

 4

Is it any wonder that in the great love stories – Romeo and Juliet, Paolo and Francesca, Ana Karenina, Brokeback Mountain – one or both protagonists die? The great writers knew first-love was temporal, but memory wouldn’t let it go, wouldn’t let it stay in its historical space. They therefore killed off one or both lovers sealing the beloved in a funeral vault and forever closing the road back except through untrustworthy memory.

1  Bob Dylan, If You See Her Say Hello Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3, 1961-1989.
2  L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between Hamish Hamilton, 1953.
3  Joni Mitchell, Woodstock Ladies of the Canyon, 1970.
4 Ary Scheffer. “Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld.” Wallace Collection, 1835.

Inside the Mind (essay-18)

July 18, 2017 commentary

Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Word Count – 689

Inside the minds of Trump’s “true believers”

Trump’s rhetoric has inspired millions of disaffected voters to become “true believers” of his presidency
RONALD W. PIES, THE CONVERSATION

When Donald Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University this spring, he told the graduates that “America has always been the land of dreams because America is a nation of true believers.” Trump argued that, in America, “we don’t worship government; we worship God.”

I suspect the president was unaware that the term “true believer” was made famous more than 65 years ago in Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.” Hoffer had no academic training, having worked mainly as a longshoreman. He wrote “The True Believer” in reaction to the rise of fascism, Nazism and communism. Against all odds, the book became a best-seller.

Hoffer shrewdly analyzed the forces that spark nationalist and totalitarian movements. The irony of Trump’s “true believers” remark probably escaped both the president and his audience.
As a psychiatrist, I’m interested in how vulnerable groups can be manipulated by misleading rhetoric. I believe there are striking parallels between Trump’s rhetoric and the factors Hoffer explored.

Hoffer wrote, “For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute.” They must also have “an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future” and “be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap.”
Much of Trump’s campaign was based on promises of vast change, such as the immediate repeal of Obamacare. These promises never took into account the great difficulties of radical change. Indeed, in late February 2017, Trump acknowledged, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” And, of course, Trump had no political or public-sector experience to inform his most controversial decisions. Yet he masterfully parlayed this shortcoming into the virtue of being an “outsider” battling an entrenched Washington establishment.

Hoffer viewed “true believers” as craving “a new life — a rebirth — or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.” Trump’s repeated promise to “make America great again” spoke to such a longing among disaffected voters. This message was often fused with appeals to evangelical Christians. Indeed, writing in The New Republic, Sarah Posner observed that “Trump effectively played to the religious right’s own roots in white supremacy.”
Hoffer understood that the true believer is rarely concerned with facts. He wrote, “It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises.”

Trump’s rhetoric was based on what Senior Adviser Kellyanne Conway famously called “alternative facts.” And Trump repeatedly made promises that most experts considered anything but feasible. He proclaimed, for example, “I will build a great wall … on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
Hoffer recognized that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.” Furthermore, “the ideal devil is a foreigner . . . [and] a domestic enemy must be given a foreign ancestry.”

True to form, Trump’s campaign rhetoric repeatedly invoked anti-immigrant themes, often disparaging Muslims and Mexicans. Trump famously characterized Judge Gonzalo Curiel as a “hater” and a “Mexican” when Curiel was presiding over lawsuits against Trump University — despite the fact that Curiel was born in Indiana.

Finally, Hoffer described the “true believer” as someone willing to die for “the cause.” It’s not clear how many of Trump’s supporters would fit that description. But Trump himself may have characterized his most fervid followers when he said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Eric Hoffer might well have called those voters Trump’s “true believers.”

Ronald W. Pies, Professor of Psychiatry, Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University; and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry,
Tufts University School of Medicine, Tufts University
This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The image is a David Horsey cartoon in the LA Times.
I read the article on the Salon’s website.

Maddow’s Opening Monologue (essay-17)

June 30, 2017 commentary

Friday, June 30, 2017
Word Count – 1,355

The following is a partial transcript of Rachel Maddow’s opening monologue on her Friday, June 30, 2017 show.

All politicians, all public figures to a certain extend have to manage the art of diverting people’s attention at times, changing the subject, creating deliberate distractions …

Our current president is very, very, very good at this. He just doesn’t have that skill like a normal politician, he has a peculiar, nuclear version of it. Let me explain what I mean.

A normal political way, a normal politician’s way to change the subject … is to stop talking about whatever that person finds inconvenient, unfavorable or uncomfortable … and instead start talking about something else and hope that you bring people along to this new topic. … Normal politicians have an array of choices when it comes to distracting and changing the subject …

What our new president does is different. What our new president does is really a special twist on that tradition. There is a special ingredient that he is willing to cook with that no one else is. And that is that he deliberately tries not just to distract, but to offend. He doesn’t merely distract people, he disgusts people. He breaks the bounds of decency, he breaks the bounds of what people generally agree are the moral rules for engagement in public discourse and he breaks those rules in a way that just doesn’t start a new narrative, it stops all normal politics and all normal media coverage of current events,

His specialty, what marks him out as really a different kind of cat, is that he is very willing, happy even, deliberately trying to go past the merely controversial; he goes past provocative; he goes right to language, right to public discourse and behavior that … is considered abusive or even repulsive.

The reason I’m talking about this is that I think it’s actually important in terms of understanding his variety of political power and therefore our political time as a country right now. Because the way he generates distraction, the way he changes the subject away from things he doesn’t want to talk about, it’s more than just a quantitative difference from what other politicians do. What he does is really qualitatively different … Because the way he does it, what he does draws other people in to participate in his distraction, almost whether they want to or not …

There is among all sorts of people a natural inclination, a decent inclination, to get involved in what he is doing … to not just witness it, but to feel called to respond by virtue of the fact that you have witnessed it.

When someone does something that is repugnant and abusive, there is something that is good and decent and understandable in all of us … that makes us want to express our opposition … to weigh in against this vile behavior we have seen from someone in that kind of position.

This guy’s strategy really is different. It’s to sort of tap on the glass of your moral compass … to try and make you feel implicated by your silence …

This guy’s strategy really is to be so upsetting, so reprehensible, so disruptive and insulting to the norms of what we agree to as Americans in public life, that he draws everyone in to the response to what he’s done. Everyone feels like you just can’t see it, you have to say something about it in order to stand up for your own dignity and that then provides another round of attention.

What he has perfected is a nuclear version of a conventional political tactic. It is conventional politics to distract; it is not conventional politics to disgust. And the reason he does it; the reason he’s mastered this as a tactic and he uses this tactic over and over again in a way that we’ve really, honestly never seen before at this level of American politics, the reason he can do it; the reason it makes sense for him to do it is because the thing he harms by behaving this way, the thing he harms by sneering at the boundaries of decency and then breaking those boundaries with glee, what he hurts by doing that is something that doesn’t belong to him. The thing he damages is something he neither owns nor particularly values … The thing he hurts is the presidency and by extension the standing of the United States of America. And if you’re a person who doesn’t really care about those things, someone who doesn’t think those things are all that valuable, someone who certainly doesn’t feel any responsibility for not only recognizing their value, but upholding their value with your behavior, then why not let those things take the hit? Why not let those things absorb the costs?

The presidency, the standing of the United States among nations, if those costs are external to you, if those things aren’t yours then those costs, when you hurt them, are external and the rewards of your behavior that hurts them is internal. The rewards all accrue to you, right? The ability to create infinite distractions at will; the ability to lead the media and to lead much of the nation basically on a choke-chain at will, because you are willing to go beyond provocative and controversial, to the point of disgust. All benefits of that accrue to him; the harm of it is to the country. And if you don’t care, it’s a win-win, right?

This president is a different kind of political animal, because he doesn’t mind getting negative press; he doesn’t mind bad press; he also doesn’t mind any harm he does to the presidency by his behavior, but I think there’s been a fundamental misunderstanding that you saw in the frustration of his opponents last year. His opponents in the presidential primaries … and in the general election were so frustrated and angry by his ability to command media attention.

Everyone else was trying to get media attention; but everyone else, other than him, was trying to get good media attention. They were trying to get positive media attention for themselves and their ideas. He was not that picky.

Think of the incentives here. Think how this works as political science. … Think about what this means for us as a country and how the political science of this works; how the incentives stack up? When the ability to shock and offend and, now that he’s president to harm the presidency and harm the country in the process, is something he takes as a cost-free to him. We should expect him to do more of it.

Over the past two days, the president has been roundly, roundly condemned … There is nothing to suggest that that bothers him in the least. I think that the way this goes down in his White House political playbook as a resoundingly effective stunt, Whoa, look how I’ve turned the narrative around to this. This is a tactic that worked very well for him. As a distraction, this was a home-run. And given the incentives at work here, given the values of this person and the administration that we are dealing with now, I don’t know what the cure to this is. I don’t know what the defense to this is for us as a country.

And as a country, we have to decide exactly how much we’re gonna play requests from him; exactly how much we’re gonna talk about what he wants us to talk about; how much we’re gonna behave the way he wants us to behave; how much we’re gonna snap to attention, snap our attention to him when he commands it.

All politicians learn distraction, this metastasized version of distraction that he plays though is deliberately and I think we’ll recognize in the end is harmful to the country and to the presidency specifically. That is the magical ingredient that he is willing to cook with that no other politician will.

Click to go to the video of the show.

War Will Take Care of the Issue (essay-16)

May 18, 2017 commentary

Thursday, May 18, 2017
Word Count – 853

either a species learns to control its own population or
disease, famine, war will take care of the issue
– draft –
American, at this instance, is often referred to as decadent, greedy, tapped-out, self-indulgent, old, fat; and I think all those descriptors hit an element of 21st America. But the characteristic that captures our attitude and our motivation best is meanness. We began with a Republican presidential primary that traded in meanness and continued this approach into the general election. Democrats and Liberals participated in the nastiness as much as did Republicans and the Far-Right. Democrats and Liberals are more passive about their meanness and they tend to cover it in self-righteousness. If they were not being passive nasty, then (a) they would have turned out and voted for Clinton instead of letting a man who bragged about not paying taxes take control of the government and; (b) they would be offering alternatives to what is being offered by the Republican Party.

Because meanness is our defining attitude, I want to explore the purpose/value of meanness in human society? (The following eight examples allow me to generalize this current attitude to an operating condition present in many modern societies.)

  1. the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom
  2. the ascendancy of the National Front in France
  3. the election of Donald Trump in the United States
  4. the economic collapse of Venezuela
  5. the rule of Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs in Russia
  6. the dictatorship of Kim Jong-un in North Korea
  7. the war-crimes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and
  8. the take-over of Israel by Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party.

I am going to consider 2 reasons that could explain why we find ourselves in this current predicament.

Over-population
Have we as a species over-extended ourselves; are there too many of us on the planet? If we look at the congested highways, the teeming cities and the massive waves of refugees, we can certainly answer yes. If we look at climate change and the devastation fossil fuel consumption has wrought, the answer to over-population and over-extension is again yes.

What is nature’s response to over-population? Can I suggest that the Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s are examples of nature’s reaction of over-population? And what is the human response to over-population? I suggest that World War I, World War II and the Middle East Wars of the last 20 years are how humans control for over-population.

I believe that we are genetically programmed to destroy other humans when there are too many mouths to feed, too many children to support, too many old people still alive? Over-population triggers inhibitors that suppress empathy and compassion making us more tolerant of war, because it culls the human race of its access?

Brutal Capitalism
In 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved, Communism and Socialism also came crashing down. And rather than use that opportunity to examine the other post-war economic construct, western societies, specifically America, proclaimed the supremacy and rightness of Capitalism. All of capitalism’s inherent problems were put aside, because by virtue of the fact that it was still standing meant it was the right model.

However, the forced-sharing that Communism and Socialism forced onto Capitalism, in order to make it appeal to the masses, could now be dropped and a more pure form worshiped. The One-Percenters began their ascendancy; they and their hangers-on grabbed all the wealth and power they could get away with. The two most blatant examples of this pure capitalism are America and the United Kingdom.

Capitalist Britain made London the world banking center. Screw all those living in the provinces. Capitalist America transformed its society into a insatiable consumer ordering volumes of unnecessary clap-trap from the comfort of his/her over-stuffed sofa. American capitalism has changed the country from a manufacturing power-house to a fat passive consumer. The anathema of American capitalism is government supplied social security or any program that still uses a socialistic citizen support model. Capitalism is survival of the fittest.

The latest debate on health-care captures this battle between socialized support of health-care and capitalism’s demand that all services and products carry a price-tag and that all transactions result in profit for its share-holders. In a capitalistic economy, health-care is a commodity and if you can’t afford it, you can’t have it. (You’re probably not a good consumer if your main focus is your failing health.)

“Stop whining and stop buying the latest iPhone because if you put that discretionary spending towards your health-care, there would be no need for and affordable care act.”
“Let’s remember, nobody dies because they don’t have access health care.”

With the party of the rich in charge of both houses of Congress and a rich-man as president, Capitalism’s stars have aligned. The ascendancy of the Republican Party and Donald Trump into a single-party government is the apex of American Capitalism. The safety-net, an example of the forced-sharing, and a contract between the government and its people can finally be destroyed.

The human race is being culled. Only the economically fit are wanted; the rest can die off.

Madness (essay-15)

April 1, 2017 commentary

Saturday, April 1, 2017
Word Count – 941


I suspect that Russia’s actions in the 2016 presidential elections had two goals:
– to elect someone that the American media and the American people would obsess over to the detriment of everything else and
– to elect the most disqualified candidate, someone who would discredit American creativity, American ingenuity and America’s place in the world.
And Russia succeeded, beyond its wildest dreams.

The Trump Family: I believe that there is a financial connection between the Trump empire and the Russian oligarchs; and I believe that the Trump empire is built on laundered Russian money. The Trump family company and the Trump narrative seem like the saga of the mythical Corleone family. (Is Ivanka the latest iteration of the godfather daughter?)

The Trump story may be a snap-shot of America at the beginning of the 21st century, but the value of this image, is to point to the clash of empires that we are living through. By interfering in the 2016 presidential election, the Russian empire, led by Vladimir Putin, declared war with the American empire. And the first salvo of this digital war began a year ago.

Since January of 2016, Americans have been drowned by a tidal wave of orange-haired media vomit. Leslie Moonves, the CBS executive chairman and CEO, said about candidate Trump – “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Fortunes are being made in the wake of this monsoon. CNN, MSNBC have seen their audience-share skyrocket. Rachel Maddow is winning her time-slot against FOX-News. The media circus is so pervasive that TV is now exclusively Trumpland. As a country, we seem perfectly willing to forget about everything and to watch Donald J. Trump’s every move. How long will it be before we get news reports on of The Donald’s bathroom schedule? Let’s not forget Versailles and The King’s Lever. (Louis XIV, 18th century – left image)

We are living in a time when Washington politics have become reality-TV. Forget Dancing with the Stars, forget Survivor, forget The Kardashians, we now have Trump-TV 24/7.

And what is most disturbing about this digital rot, are the stories of Trump voters who are asked if they have buyer’s remorse. In the elite newspapers and cable channels, these reports have an underlying tone of glee that Trump voters are getting screwed; an almost serves-you-right for voting for the buffoon attitude. When did we stop thinking of the voter, who didn’t vote like me, as other; as someone worthy of my scorn, as someone worthy of my vengeance? These are fellow Americans who saw in the Democratic candidate a disdain for working people; who saw in the Democratic candidate someone more interested in transgenders than the struggling working-class. The pox that will befall the poor, the working-classes is one of the tragedies of Trump America. The Great Famine of 1845 happened in a land owned by the greatest empire of the time. Thirty miles east, the British empire was drowning in wealth and yet its Irish subjects were starving to death. Our country is rich beyond compare, the Trump administration is made up of one-percenters, and yet it endorsed a health-care plan that would have devastated 24 million poor and low-income Americans.

In its obsession with extremes and extravaganzas, the media has obliterated all sense of dialogue, all sense of understanding. By giving fake-news more time than real-news, the media has obliterated our ability to understand and solve complex problems. And in its wake, the media leaves behind a country greatly undermined, greatly reduced; a country that is finding it difficult to lead. But while we are glued to Trump’s latest madness, the rest of the world is aghast at our impotence; the rest of the world is anxious about a crippled America. Mad King George (George III, 18th century – right image) lost the colonies; under the madness of Donald Trump the Pax Americana is lost. And the Russian oligarchs are waiting in the wings to feed on the carrion.

Public Education: There’s a parallel to Trump America in another government agency – public education. After the tumultuous upheaval of the 1960s, school boards rushed to desegregate and while administrations were going through this radical shift, individual schools were being destroyed by two fake hippie mantras – all are equally talented and all should have an equal say. Teachers who spent their time with their feet up and reading the sport-pages while their students did one more work-sheet were given the same credence as the hard-working, talented educators. Knowledge, skills and dedication were devalued; they were put on par with ignorance, incompetence and apathy.

The result of this fake openness was to paralyze the individual school; when everyone’s voice was of equal import, no consensus could be reached and all problem-solving and quality education came to a stand still. And in the wake of the paralysis all decision-making moved from the local school to central-office. The very movement that preached love and harmony was also used to atrophy a public institution that had created a workforce and a populace that brought about the American century.

I believe the Federal Government and local governments are going through their own devaluation, their own shift and Trump is the poster-child for this movement. (Donald Trump, 21st century – middle image) Imagine, winning on the backs of poor and low-income Americans and then turning around and making your first legislative act a law that would have further devastated the very people who voted for you. I’m sure that the teachers who helped destroy the system believed they were standing up against all them hoity-toity educators with masters and PHDs; all them data-driven administrators with their newfangled ideas.
What do you mean, gym teachers shouldn’t be principals!

Savage Capitalism (essay-14)

March 28, 2017 commentary

Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Word Count – 769

politics is returning to the streets

What follows are excerpts from Enzo Traverso’s essay – Trump’s Savage Capitalism: The Nightmare Is Real – World Policy Journal. The essay was referenced in Ishaan Tharoor’s, March 28 article – Today’s WorldView – in the Washington Post.


    •      When the final results came in, the triumph of an indecent, semi-fascist monster over a former secretary of state produced a vast and prolonged trauma.
    •     But what the media failed to foresee was not a Trump landslide, which did not take place, but the decline of the democratic vote.
    •     We are not facing the transformation of the United States into a fascist community embodied by a charismatic leader; what occurred is the rejection of the political establishment through mass abstention and a protest vote captured by a populist demagogue in a few key states.
    •     In other words, Trump signifies an upheaval at the political level, not a sudden, dramatic change in American society (as the Nazi party did in Germany, shifting from 2.6 percent to 37.27 percent of the popular vote between the elections of 1928 and 1932).
    •     Trump is as far from classical fascism as Occupy Wall Street, … are from 20th-century communism. Nevertheless, Trumpism and the Occupy movement represent a social, political, and even class polarity as deep as the conflict between fascism and communism nearly a century ago.
    •     He pretends to defend the popular classes that have been deeply affected by the economic crises of 2008 and the deindustrialization of the country — not by denouncing the main culprit, financial capitalism, but by offering them a scapegoat. His campaign reproduced features of old anti-Semitism, which defined a mythical, ethnically homogeneous national community against its enemies: the Jews. Trump took this model and enlarged the spectrum to include African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and nonwhite immigrants.

  •     It seems to me that, in Trump’s rhetoric, his condemnations of “the establishment” reproduce the anti-Semitic cliché of a virtuous agrarian community rooted in land and tradition opposed to an anonymous, corrupted, intellectual, and cosmopolitan metropolis. … he portrays the cities as realms of an abstract and ungraspable power generated by media, finance, and culture, which anti-Semitism codified during the past century.
  •     His speeches and meetings recall fascist aesthetics: One could not view the images of his aircraft landing at a rally, surrounded by a cheering crowd, without remembering the opening sequence of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, with Hitler flying over Nuremberg to join his waiting disciples at the Nazi congress.
  •     The European dictators relied on the electrical, exciting atmosphere of mass rallies, in which their mystical union with the people resulted from the physical presence of the crowd; Trump’s charisma runs through TV screens.
  •     The fact is there is no fascist organization behind Trump. He does not lead a mass movement; he is a TV star. From this point of view, he is much more reminiscent of Berlusconi than Mussolini. … like Berlusconi, he is a billionaire (or at least claims to be) whose political activities will permanently collide with his private business. … He was able to channel the dissatisfaction and anger of ordinary people against Washington and Wall Street,
  •     The Republican Party he now leads is precisely the opposite of a radical, subversive movement.
  •     Classical fascisms worshipped the state, defended imperialism, and promoted military expansionism. … Trump, by contrast, seems more oriented toward isolationism … In the field of foreign policy, his vision does not transcend his own business interests.
  •     He won the votes of only a quarter of eligible American voters, and his success gives a voice to the fear and frustrations of a minority, like WASP nationalism did a century ago, when its targets were the Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
  •     Trump emerges in an age of financial capitalism, competitive individualism, and social precariousness. He does not organize and mobilize the masses; he attracts an audience in an atomized society of consumers. He does not wear a uniform, like Hitler and Mussolini, but instead exhibits his luxurious lifestyle like a stereotype of a Hollywood star.
  •     Trump’s rise is not a sudden return to barbarism, nor is it a meteor crashing down onto a peaceful country. Rather he is the product of the transformations of capitalism in recent decades. With his nationalist, populist, racist, and authoritarian tendencies, he personifies a form of savage capitalism—a capitalism without a human face. It is not a resurgence of fascism, but something new and not yet realized.
  •     Since Trump does not respect the rule of law, traditional politics risks becoming obsolete or, at the very least, largely inadequate. Politics, therefore, is returning to the streets.

End of Empire (essay-13B)

January 12, 2017 commentary

essay – 13 (part two)
Wednesday, January 12, 2017
Word Count – 603

I believe that America is at the same point that England was at the beginning of the 20th century. England was ruled by a corrupt, degenerate upper-class – England’s one-percenters – that owned all the wealth and lived off the exploitation of its people. American government is totally controlled by the party that represents the interest of its corporate oligarchy and it was voted into office and power by the least financially secure.

The War-To-End-All-Wars (1914-1918) was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. And the last nail was hammered into the coffin in 1945.

Empires don’t have a one event on/off switch. It took 31 years for England to go from the empire on which the sun never sets to an island nation. How long will it take for the American Empire to officially be done?

The following is an examination of 4 indicators that I believe point to the beginning of the end.

political – 47% of eligible voters did not vote on November 8

  • Gerrymandering, as practiced by the modern Republican Party, has atrophied government and made it the pawn of corporate America – the one-percenters.
  • A man, who for many years, has paid no taxes, and who boasts about it and claims it’s an indicator of his intelligence, has been elected president.
  • His election is tarred by evidence that a foreign power skewed the vote in his favor.
  • Nine days before inauguration, and the president-elect has to defend himself against reports of sexual perversion. Today’s news-conference was the stage-set of a politician accused of using hookers. You know the look – all the family shows up, especially the wife who says she trusts her husband. (In today’s version, Pence played the wife role.)

technology – American ingenuity is asleep or dead

  • In 2011, NASA closed the 30-year space program. A program that pioneered many of the advances we now take for granted.
  • We’re all using technology invented 20 years ago, but paying through the nose for the latest updates. Updates that add no value to already bloated, cumbersome and underused systems.
  • All our beloved devices are made overseas. China and India being the biggest exporters of digital gadgets.
  • In a country that manages its consumption, its information, its stock market through bits and bytes, electronic voting is not an option.
  • On the Internet, false news, conspiracy theories and outright lies live on equal footing with facts and intelligence reports.
  • The president-elect communicates in 140-character tweets.

health care – the true coin-of-the-realm

  • In a society where workers move from job-to-job with alarming frequency, attaching health care to payroll is the only way to stop worker mobility. Therefore is it any surprise that corporate-government wants to control who gets health car? Control health care and you control the work-force.
  • Health care has been dubbed Obama Care and therefore easier to vilify and repeal.
  • Health care is also tied up with women’s heath issues and contraception and therefore suspect.
  • The group that voted on November 8 is also the group most at risk of losing its health care coverage.
  • Healthy eating and healthy practices have been dubbed elitist preoccupations. It’s time for sugar, salt, fast-foods and over-eating to regain their primacy in the American cuisine. Salads, vegetables OMG! This is America! We don’t eat that crap.

education – a political flashpoint

  • Forget skills, forget science, forget Math, forget reading, and certainly forget writing.
  • What’s important is that your daughter is in class with her friends; that your son gets A’s and no C’s; that creationism is taught; that the football team has the best playing-field.
  • And let’s make sure that black and poor children stay in inner-city schools; and that only white and middle-class kids attend suburban schools.
  • Remember that parents and politicians dictate the curriculum; teachers need to realize that they are mere servants.
  • In early 20th century England schooling was only for the upper-classes; girls were taught the niceties and prepared to be married off; and boys … Please! They’re going to inherit the title, the house, the stables, and the servants. Learning … Please! The tutor just needed to keep them busy until they could be shipped off to boarding school.
  • And let’s not forget that admission to Oxford and Cambridge was based on social-class not intelligence. (I love the fact that public-schools in England are tuition heavy private schools. Tell me that isn’t a great abuse of language.)
  • In 21st American, at the elite universities, legacy preference is an admission priority. Remember, proud C-student George W. Bush was accepted at Yale and know-it-all Trump is a graduate of Wharton.

click to read part one – golden showers

Golden Showers (essay-13A)

January 11, 2017 commentary

essay – 13 (part one)
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Word Count – 709

golden showers and end of empire

3. However, there were other aspects to TRUMP’s engagement with the Russian authorities. One which had borne fruit for them was to exploit TRUMP’s personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable ‘kompromat’ (compromising material) on him. According to Source D, where s/he had been present, TRUMP’s (perverted) conduct in Moscow included hiring the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where he knew President and Mrs OBAMA (whom he hates) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia, and defiling the bed where they had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him. The hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to. 1

one – liberals as scolds

One of the reason I am willing to put up an image of a page, of the unverified salacious report, is because after reading The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan’s column – How BuzzFeed crossed the line in publishing salacious ‘dossier’ on Trump – all I could think of is the Trumpettes who during the campaign would get all indignant and self-righteous when anyone repeated the word pussy, and yet these same women championed the man who used the slur and they helped elect him president. Now, Margaret Sullivan seems to be offended by the latest dip into the cesspool. Guess pussy has seeped into the vernacular and is no longer banned in DC salons, but golden showers is too perverted for sensitive ladies taking tea in their solariums.

Sullivan argues that BuzzFeed, by publishing the unverified report, is playing into the hands of the president-elect’s insistence that the media is spreading fake-news, that the media is biased. (Did Breitbart News worry about inflaming Democrats when it published all the lies about Clinton? Did Matt Lauer feel bad when he went after Clinton about her emails, but let Trump off without even a challenge?) Journalists, understand that sitting in your well-appointed DC offices, sporting hipster-glasses, silk neck-wear, blue-suede Hubbards and writing liberal treaties also feeds the cesspool. Your shit just seeps in through a different hole.

The Right has learned how to use digital warfare and installed one of its own in the Oval Office. (Did The Right know that Liberals wouldn’t know what to do in an election that trafficked in shit. Did The Right suspected that the liberal-fringe wouldn’t turn out or if they did, they would vote for him? Did The Right suspected that the suburban-housewives would stay home on election day?) The Left wants to rise above the muck, the sewage; the Left wants to continue playing with tea-sets and niceties and huff-and-puff at a Congress and Senate controlled by Republicans. LIBERALS, you’re assholes; civility, ideas, right and wrong went out the window on November 8. Confrontation, lies, conspiracy-theories and Russian-hacks won on November 8. Greed and rapacity are the new norms.

BTW, isn’t that what the British did during the colonial skirmishes – denounce the primitive, savage settlers for not knowing the proper way to fight? Can you image sneaking up on a well-healed Redcoat? Who are these peasants, these farmers, don’t they recognize their betters? Are Liberals the new Redcoats?

Liberals … they still believe that scolding and pointing out the wrongs of the incoming administration will result in change. But then scolding has been associated with Liberals for a while now. Obama scolds and wrings his hands each time some crazy pulls a gun and kills innocents. And much of Clinton’s campaign was a scolding of the ultimate brat – the comb-over man-child of 721 Fifth Avenue.

There has also been scolding around food and weight. What’s more recognizable than skinny Liberals drinking San Pellegrino while eating kale in tony suburban bistros? The man-child was photographed eating deep-fried chicken and slurping a giant sugar-drink. There has been scolding around language. How many news-stories have there been about people losing their livelihood because they used a politically inappropriate word? The man-child swore from him podium for all the world to hear – “Get him the fuck out of here.” And after eight years of inflicting their superiority across the cultural landscape, a group of Americans revolted and elected a brat to blunt this mindset. He may have exposed the elitists’ attitudes – the us versus them; the duplicity – talking about fair housing, but hiding in rich suburbs; talking about public education, but segregating their kids in private schools; but it was his defiance of the holier-than-thou, of the scolds that got him elected.

I believe that America is at the same point that England was at the beginning of the 20th century. England was ruled by a corrupt, degenerate upper-class – England’s one-percenters – that owned all the wealth and lived off the exploitation of its people. American government is totally controlled by the party that represents the interest of its corporate oligarchy and it was voted into office and power by the least financially secure voters.

And it took World War One (1914-1918) to shift that imbalance.

click to read part two – end of empire

1  BuzzFeed

Twilight of the Gods (essay-12)

November 11, 2016 commentary

Friday, November 11, 2016
Word Count – 869

gotterdammerung – twilight

woodstock31

Before I could write about the 2016 election, I needed a word to wrap my thoughts around. And by Thursday, I had the word and it was götterdämmerung. It’s the title of the final opera of Richard Wagner’s four part cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. And this title translates as Twilight of the Gods.

The plot of the four-part opera revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world. In the final installment – Gotterdammerung – the god Wotan, who has coveted the ring, and who was temporarily thwarted by a woman, is destroyed.

And it’s with Gotterdammerung in mind that I want to write about the election.

So, what did we learn on Tuesday?

  • Hillary, in her last political action, kicked the goddamn door open to the 21st century. No one will ever question whether a woman can head a national ticket for president again.
  • The women’s movement has moved on. Modern women do not come with the gender baggage that women of Hillary’s generation carry. Modern women would have cheered and cheered loudly if Hillary had told the Donald that she had a bigger dick than he had. 2
  • Because of Hillary, the misogyny that permeated American culture has been fully exposed. And even though a serial misogynist won the election, but not the popular vote, the label he carries and the issues around gender and violence against women are now front and center.
    Had Hillary won, the destructive forces aligned against women would have stayed hidden behind the dismissive phrase – but a woman won. Just as the destructive forces aligned against African-Americans have been silenced by the phrase – but you have African-American president.
  • Those of us on the east and west coasts, those of us who live in gentrified neighborhoods, those of us who own mcmansions and Teslas can no longer pretend that we didn’t grow up in the McKeesports, the Sault Ste Maries, the Fitchburgs, the Toledos of 20th century America. Because when we do, we get the results we saw Tuesday,
    And we can’t pretend that those who stayed back in the industrial centers of our parents’ generation are all stupid bigots who get their information from Fox News. No, they are also human beings trying to earn a living, trying to do what is best for their children.
  • That Richard Florida’s term, creative class, is a hoax – a smoke screen for greed and self aggrandizement. It’s a term that many of those who left behind the manual labor of their parents have clothed themselves in. And the election showed that the creative class has calcified in its exclusivity. It no longer thinks outside the box, it no longer challenges the status-quo, it shops. And alternative, third-party presidential candidates are just another commodity on the shelf.
    And with the corruption of the educated finally exposed, the election made clear that it’s those who live outside the iPhone-worlds of the hoity-toity creatives that are now the agents of change.
  • As the group that brought about the cultural revolution exits the public arena, we leave behind not a young Martin, not a young Bobby, but an old, seedy parody of JFK with a comb-over and a former mayor who believes that because he’s confessed to his very Roman Catholic priest he is free of the stain of adultery.
    Our group also leave behind the city that nurtured and elevated these two men. New York City’s value as the east-coast center of diversity as the city that gave us the Stonewall rebellion will be forever diminished.
  • We’ve also learned that the Christian Right is anything but Christian; that it’s really the modern Klan in religious robes. And that its political influence and its adherence to Christian beliefs are for sale to any white man. Can you say money-changers?
  • And lastly, we’ve learned that the Grand Old Party is fooling itself if it thinks the president-elect has any loyalty to its message or to its ideology. He ran just as much against them as he did his Democratic opponent.

The essay title is also about the second part of the election – the myth that we can go back and make American great again. Only a 70-year-old, white man and a political party hell-bent on protecting the corporate rich can spew such a fallacy. Only the minions of a corporate oligarchy can stand tall and without hesitation peddle lies to struggling blue-collar workers and not care about the duplicity they propagate. Wotan didn’t care who suffered or who died as long as he got the ring. And the king of the gods had no idea that the ring would lead him to a throne that would also serve as his funeral pyre.

It is my belief that the new president and the Republican majority will finally put 20th century America to rest; that at the end of their tenure we will see ashes and smoke. What I don’t know is who and what else will be consumed in the immolation.

1  The iconic image from Woodstock, 1969.
2  Thanks Mim, it was a great comment.


the numbers

  • 47% of eligible voters did not vote
  • 53% of white-women voted for the Republican candidate
  • the Republican candidate receiver fewer votes than Romney did in 2012
  • Hillary received 5 million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012

Consumerism and Capitalism (essay-11)

November 1, 2016 commentary

Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Word Count – 722

consumerism and capitalism

I just finished listening to J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. And just as Studs Terkel’s interviews take on an added dimension when listened to; and just as a production of Romeo and Juliet makes the young lovers real; J.D. Vance’s voice adds an element to the narrative that no written-page can elicit. The oral telling, just like Terkel’s tapes and Shakespeare’s stage, makes the characters, the misery, the deliverance human. Personal accounts and Shakespearean plays need the voices of the narrators and actors to give us access to their meaning, their wonder, their power.

Mr. Vance’s story is familiar and his retelling makes it both personal and universal. But what I walked away with was the role of American consumerism and capitalism and their destructive impact on the lives of a family and culture in crisis.

In 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, the media proclaimed the end of Communism and the triumph of Capitalism. The ills and decadence of the Russian ideology were examined and found lacking compared to the gifts and meritocracy of American capitalism. And for the next 30 years, we never questioned this hypothesis, we never saw the ills and decadence of a consumer society. And where Mr. Vance goes nowhere near the idea that American consumerism is a puppet-master force-feeding its people, I wanna go there and write about capitalism and consumerism as the two viruses changing modern America to a land of buyers.

In America, everything is for sale. And in the last 30 years, the American corporations and the American government have married consumerism to the American Dream. We now equate success with stuff especially brand-name stuff and the more you have the more successful you are.

drugs – just another sales item

I know many people who are dealing with addiction and I know all the hand-wringing about underfunded treatment facilities, poorly paid staff and limited access. But there is little discussion about the economy of drugs. Take the opiate epidemic that is currently front and center in most states, does anyone talk about the billions that the drug companies are making off these prescriptions; does anyone talk about reining in the pharmaceuticals who are buying off state and federal legislatures; does anyone talk about the fact that to control the epidemic is to control the free-market?

No, we talk about the devastating effects of the epidemic. And those are real and they are destroying individuals, families and communities. (J.D. Vance talks about all the people in his family, in his community for whom addition was and is a way of life.) But nothing will change, because to make honest, real change is to control the process that begins in some off-shore factory and ends in the dispensation of the drugs, by a certified doctor, to a people that have been convinced, through extreme marketing, that drug consumption is our right, that drug consumption will make us happy. (The widespread marketing of drugs began in 1995 when the FDA changed the rules. There’s even an official name for this marketing of drugs – Direct-to-Consumer Advertising (DTCA).)

And in our consumer driven economy, it’s hard to figure out where the balance is between life-saving drugs therapy and addiction. When we as constantly told to buy it’s hard to distinguish a harmful drug from a miracle drug when the commercials show happy, happy consumers.

tis the season to buy and buy and buy

There is a very depressing anecdote in the J.D. Vance book about the horrors that Christmas gift-giving wrecked on his family. The narrator is under 3 years-old, and his addict mother spends money she doesn’t have and good-will she desperately needs just so she can buy the latest “hot” toy for a child who has no idea about “hot” toy. And In a world where all Christmas purchases are good, there is no permission to ask, do I need that item?

For me the story wasn’t unique to Mr. Vance’s family. At Christmas, insincere, extravagant, extreme buying is the rule. And the campaign to get everyone to buy begins at the end of September. 30% of a retail store annual sales happen during the Christmas shopping season. And In a world where all purchases are good, there is no permission to ask, do I need that?

Stereotypes (essay-10)

August 28, 2016 commentary

Sunday, August 28, 2016
Word Count – 679

stereotypes

who is today’s lexus driver
I’ve been trying to figure out how to develop a set of essays and post based on the idea of stereotypes. It’s taken me a while, because the term is wrought with danger. Also, because in America, the word is so closely associated with and referenced when talking about Blacks, it’s been easy to forget that stereotypes exists across the entire culture; that all groups are susceptible to the stereotype short-hand that has become part of the American English language. I want to avoid the shoals of prejudice and see if I can stay in the humor stream of the term.

So, to begin, I went looking for research on stereotypes.


the research
Researchers from Scotland suggest that stereotypes form and evolve over time through social transmission of information, similar to the way in which languages evolve.
The research team led by Dr. Doug Martin of the Person Perception Lab at the University of Aberdeen used a technique they have used previously to study the evolution of language.
Dr. Martin said the process seen in the research reflects the oversimplified nature of stereotypes, with social groups (and ourselves) categorized and assigned attributes, and he suggested that stereotypes form to help us make sense of the world around us and to give us some basic information as a starting point.

Dr. Martin also pointed out that stereotypes are not fixed and do change over time. For example, a hundred years ago boys were traditionally dressed in pink, while blue was regarded as a “dainty” color more suitable for girls. Both genders wore dresses and played with dolls.

the research abstract
Stereotypes are template-like cognitive representations whereby membership in a social group is associated with the possession of certain attributes (e.g., scientists are geeky, Scottish people are miserly, women like the color pink). Examining stereotypes from an evolutionary perspective, we present evidence that they are a functional, cognitive, and social adaptation, without which we would be substantially disadvantaged. We suggest that stereotypes have the capacity to influence how cultural information evolves and how changes in the cultural environment have, in turn, influenced the content of stereotypes. Finally, we explore the possibility that the theories and methods of cultural evolution can provide an insight into the origins and evolution of stereotypes.

Read more at: Study demonstrates evolution of stereotypes


comments

The pins that hold my Lexus-drivers stereotypes are:

  1. My cousin Joe, insists that only old, suburban, somewhat rich, white men drive Lexus. (He drives a Mercedes.)
  2. My brother-in-law is an older, suburban, somewhat rich, white man and both he and his wife drive the high-end cars.
  3. Here in Pittsburgh, I know several older, suburban, white men who are avid Fox News enthusiast and love their Lexus luxuries.
  4. Consumer research says that the Lexus sedan is the desirable car of older, single parents. And that, in general, Lexus drivers are in their 60s, family-oriented and value politeness.

This morning, I’m driving home and got stuck behind a Lexus. The man was driving with fear: he was crawling up Highland Avenue constantly looking to his right and his left; when we got to the intersection with Bryant, he practically pulled onto the right curb rather than go near the cars, with Black drivers, making the turn onto Highland; when we got to the twisty-turny Zoo Road, he was on his break the entire run.

It was only once we got on the bridge and the city limits that he found his gas petal and then he pulled into the right lane and sped to the 28-North exit.

Why was this man even anywhere near the city? Why didn’t he just stay put in his lily-white, suburban cul-de-sac? Bet he was visiting his mom who still lives in the old neighborhood. The neighborhood that now represents everything urban, dangerous and Black.

Telling this story, I feel like the old Calabrese women in Sault Ste Marie who would make up their own narrative when watching the Soaps, because after all they didn’t speak or understand English.

Even Losing is Victory (essay-9)

August 20, 2016 commentary

20gabler-master768

Saturday, August 20, 2016
Word Count – 374

All the quotes are from Neal Gabler’s OP-ED piece in today’s New York Times.
Click to read the entire article.

    • – Donald J. Trump may be the first to run because he sees a presidential campaign as the best way to attract attention to himself. There seems to be no other driving passion in him, certainly not the passion to govern.
    • – For Mr. Trump, attention is the whole shebang.
    • – The shift is from politics to grabbing attention, and, quite possibly, from winning the election to winning the defeat, which is how he has spent practically his entire career.
    • – Mr. Trump, the real estate magnate, is after all, the master of taking a property, squeezing out the profit and leaving it for dead, then miraculously turning the loss to his advantage.
    • – A failing building or a failing Republican Party: To Mr. Trump, it may be the same thing.
    • – Basically, he sells his name: Trump steaks, Trump water, Trump University.
    • – He discovered that, in a celebrity society like ours, where so many people are competing for attention, running for president puts you a leg up even on the Kardashians.
    • – Mr. Trump’s was never a political campaign, either in the sense that it was operating under traditional political rules or in the sense that winning the election was its real objective.
    • – It was a decision designed to make sure he continues to be an attention monger rather than another pol. Mr. Bannon, a provocateur at Breitbart, has never run a campaign, but he knows a lot about how to get media attention.
    • – Winning means different things to different candidates. It doesn’t always mean winning the vote.
    • – … has taken a huge edifice, plastered his name all over it without investing much in it, and is very likely to abandon it as a troubled asset once the election is over and its value is diminished, … Only, in this case, the edifice is the Republican Party.
    • – One can well imagine a post-election Citizen Trump crowing that while Hillary Clinton is saddled with four years of headaches and a measly $400,000 salary, he is using the attention he got to make billions more as a media mogul.
    • – Now who’s the loser?

A List of Grievances (essay-8)

August 7, 2016 commentary

Sunday, August 7, 2016
Word Count – 955

I am collecting other stories and sayings that fit this theme.
If you have a story, please email it to: mario@aprigliano.us.

a list of grievances . . . 1
I just need a door to nail them onto

It’s 240 years since the founding of the Republic, and a major political party has nominated a woman for President.

Culture

  1. The worst insult to hurl at a man is to call him a pussy, a bitch or a cunt.
  2. One of the worst things to say about a married-man is that he’s pussy-whipped.
  3. Effeminate men are despised, but butch women get a pass.
  4. Nun, witch and playmate – three categories for women.
  5. Women are the fairer sex; women are the weaker sex.
  6. A woman who has multiple sex-partners is a whore; a man who has multiple sex-partners is a stud.
  7. Women on Fox News are young and sit on couches in short-short skits with their legs strategically crossed. Men on CNN sit behind desks and can work well into their sixties; some are even openly gay.
  8. At the Rio Olympics, twenty year old Gabby Douglas, who failed to put her hand on her heart during the national anthem, and did not style her hair or face to everyone’s liking was widely criticized for being disrespectful, unpatriotic and un-American. But when Ryan Lochte and friends trashed a gas station restroom, fought with a security officer, filed a false police report and then announced to every news sources that they had been robbed at gunpoint, the boys got described in the mainstream press as talented kids having a night of fun. Kids having fun!!! Isn’t Lochte, the dude with the Blade Runner hair, in his early thirties? (Can you say “White male privilege?”)
  9. Rachel Maddow, in a speech at Rockefeller University, told of how male-interns think nothing of walking into her office and asking for career advice; female-interns have to be guided into career discussions. And even when Ms. Maddow engages a female-intern in a conversation about career options the young-woman tends to hang-back.
  10. We all know women go to college to find a husband and men go to college to find a career.
  11. When a woman marries, she gives up her last-name and takes her husband’s.
  12. Women are home-makers; men are bread-winners.
  13. Pregnancy and abortion are strictly women’s issue. Men are deemed absent from the moment of conception. Men are also deemed absent from the decision to abort.
  14. State and federal governments pass legislation ad nauseam restricting access to contraception and abortion. Pregnancies are heavily regulated and get a lot of pulpit time. But no one passes legislation to support family-leave, child-care or financial support for kids and teenagers. And American Catholics, with their history of social activism, have moved away from struggling urban families and into the suburbs. They also started to vote Republican.
  15. Viagra is covered by most health-care programs. But companies go to court to block legislation that requires them to provide contraception options. Texas has closed almost all its Planned Parenthood offices leaving poor women stranded for health-care. But no Texan lost his prescription access to Viagra.

Politics

  1. It took 144 years, after the founding of the Republic, for women to be given the right to vote for President.
  2. In the 2016 Presidential election, women are being told, “Don’t vote with your vagina.” Hillary is repeatedly accused of playing the woman-card.2
  3. I don’t understand why women aren’t unanimously lining up behind the first woman running for President. African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama; Catholics voted overwhelmingly for JFK; Bernie Sanders had a huge Jewish following. And yet younger women aren’t automatically supporting someone from their own gender-group.
  4. The second surprising anti-Clinton group works at the PBS NewsHour. David Brooks, Mark Shields and Ruth Marcus love to scold Clinton. (Are all three from paternalistic ethnic groups where women are first subject to their fathers and then subject to their husbands?) I bet the parents of these three pundits voted Democratic, but they’ve decided that a woman candidate must be beyond reproach; that a woman candidate must meet a higher standard than her male counterpart. I’m sure all three would reject the idea that they are holding Clinton to a different set of rules. And yet they don’t explain the complexities of the modern political campaign; they don’t generalize from their own experiences with technology; and they don’t try to put the email red-herring into context. (It was 3 out of 30,000 emails that had a small (C) notation.) No, they just scold. Imagine what they would say if Clinton refused to release her tax-returns. (Aren’t old Liberals great. Yeah women are important, but not important enough to be in the White House. Honey, know your place.)
  5. We associate scolding with women and holding-someone-responsible with men.
  6. At Trump rallies, you can see tee-shirts with slogans like Hillary sucks but not like Monica, Trump that bitch, Hillary for prison. And all the TV pundits pass on that form of anti-women rhetoric. The New York Times put together a video of the nasty slurs and extreme behaviors at Trump rallies. The behavior is violent and misogynistic. But it took Trump encouraging gun-owners to do something if Clinton wins, for mainstream TV to focus on the violence that Trump surrounds himself with.
  7. Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted – .@realDonaldTrump makes death threats because he’s a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl.
  8. In our obsession to sound neutral, modern and politically-correct, Americans suppress the fact that they dislike women. No commentator, no pundit, except for the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, has gone near the idea that the reaction to Hillary Clinton is really about our dislike of women. It’s no accident that Republicans nominated a hyper, fake man. Any woman who spent as much time as Trump does on hair and make-up would be dismissed as an airhead; any women who acted out-of-control like Trump would be immediately medicated and removed from public-view. Not Trump. He can peacock around all day spouting horrors and no one suggests that he’s crazy. The TV elite use words like unfit. He’s not unfit, he’s crazy in the clinical sense of the word. But let’s not forget, TV loves crazy. After all, Crazy = Ratings.
  9. Americans hate women bosses.
  10. People who have worked for Clinton say, “She’s warm. She’s bright. She’s charming. She has a great sense of humor.” And yet, the dislike of Clinton is so palpable that it has become akin to a prejudice.3

It’s within this context that Hillary Clinton must make the case that she is the best qualified candidate to be President; and that it’s OK to vote for a woman, for President.

1 – Martin Luther nailed a list of grievances against the Catholic Church onto the door of a chapel in Wittenberg, Germany;
his Ninety-five Theses became the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.

2 – Voting like a woman – Creators Syndicate columnist Connie Schultz
3 – If Hillary Clinton were a man – Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen

Don’t Let the Door Hit You In the Ass (essay-7)

June 18, 2016 commentary

Saturday, June 18, 2016
Word Count – 807

In the late Fifties and Sixties, the English1 in Northern Ontario looked down their very white, very superior noses on us dark-skinned Eyetalians and those good-for-nothing Canuks2. We were in their country; their mighty empire had beaten the Axis powers in Normandy and French on the Plains of Abraham. Everyone is surprised that Brexit is an anti-immigrant push clothed in sovereignty. I know all about English anti-immigrant prejudices. I lived under them for ten years. Fast forward to June 2016 and now we all get to see the infamous English xenophobia.

Yes, please leave; please BREXIT. Let’s see you all make it on your own. And when Scotland asks for independence and leaves the UK, then you will have truly made England great again. Just like Trump will make America great again by keeping everyone out. Never mind that London is the banking center for the continent; never mind that over 40% of British trade is with the EU. Why let facts get in the way. The poorly educated are out in force in both England and American.

We were in the Tower of London, in the room with the Crown Jewels and the attendant basked in their glow. She talked as if, by virtue of being English, the Jewels were hers too. OMG! Also, I found London to be the least interesting European capital. (I’m using the geographical meaning here.) It has none of the grandeur of Rome, the elegance of Paris, the energy of Madrid, the vision of Berlin. Its Lego-block proportions and its horrible climate make it undesirable. And the London Eye and 30 St Mary Axe – The Gherkin – are ugly silhouettes in the London sky. (This is the best hoity-toity, English architects can do? But I forget, by virtue of being English these designs are naturally superior.)

Many Americans think Churchill was a great man. I think he was a narrow-minded, aristocratic bigot. He and his people gave us the British Mandate for Palestine; a proclamation we are still reeling from. He bankrupted Britain and sealed its post-war standing. And in 2016, the left-overs believe that in exiting the EU, they can reclaim their Churchillian legacy. Please, I want to watch good-old-England retreat; I want to watch good-old-England go it alone. I wonder who is going to change the soiled diapers of all them hoity-toidies in their very English, very proper nursing homes? Oh wait, the better people don’t soil their diapers. What am I thinking? Well what can you expect from an Eyetalian?

Many Americans, especially the Anglophiles, are wringing their hands at Brexit. How can they participate in English snobbery if England gets reduced to an insignificant footnote? How will they get their better-than fix if Downton Abbey is left in the dustbin? How will they know how to lord it over the rest of us if they can’t imitate the English? What will happen to Sunday night if Masterpiece Theater is cancelled? And will The-Bard-of-Avon be shunned in favor of them plebeian, American writers?

In Italy, all questions around Americans purchasing property lead to London. And where that sounds good, it adds bureaucratic layers and exorbitant fees. For most Americans looking to buy in Italy, dealing with the hoity-toidy English is reassuring; but for an American with an Italian passport, the option made buying in Italy prohibitive. (The London bankers and agents want only American millionaires.) Leaving the EU would restructure this relationship and put it back into the hands of the banks and real-estate agents on the continent.

And why does Brussels want to keep Britain in, when the formerly-great refuses to adopt the Euro? Cut them and their Pound-sterling adrift and let’s see how little-old-England does in a global economy.

My last invective is for George Will, a Washington Post political commentator. I used to like reading his column; he could generally be relied on to present a well-thought-out, Conservative view-point. In recent years he’s become a pedantic ideologue. Mr. Will has naturally taken sides on Brexit and he’s for it. How dare Brussels impose its will on the formerly-great. And England should resist such incursions on its sovereignty. Isn’t it great when privileged, white men advocate for no government regulation; isn’t it great when wanna-be aristocrats advocate for the one-percenters; isn’t it great when the bow-tied class hides English-bigotry in Oxford-syntax. Mr. Will has been the mouth-piece of the establishment, the Protestant ruling-class his whole career and finally one of its own, Donald Trump, has exposed the word-wizard. I can no longer read his column without seeing the loathing for anyone who doesn’t belong to his social class.

The image is from the Brexit campaign. I chose it, because it feeds my prejudices that English men are wimps and susceptible to sub behaviors. And I love the fact that the dom is female and European.

1  generic term to refer to all non-European, non-Native whites
2  derogatory term for French-Canadians

Note: The killing of British politician Jo Cox, by an alleged white-supremacist-sympathizer, will probably tip the vote against Brexit.
The poorly-educated angry-whites can’t seem to keep their rage under control long enough to win a match.

Expectations and Dreams (essay-6)

May 29, 2016 commentary

Narrative2

Sunday, May 29, 2016
Word Count – 813

In the early sixties when my parents moved to the west-end, it was full of young families and new homes. The Italian immigrants rebuilt the old frame-houses giving them a new skin of brick and mortar. Rainer, Ron, Frank and I were in our early teens and we spent our off-time playing softball in the empty fields and street-hockey on the newly paved roads.

Left Image
The image on the left is the path between St. Veronica School on Balfour and McFadden Avenue. Back-then, the alley wasn’t paved, but it didn’t matter, it was a short-cut. (We all walked home at noon and were back in the school-yard for 1:30.) It’s still an east-west short-cut for a number of dead-end streets north of Douglas.

Today, all those kids are in their sixties and many don’t live in Sault Ste Marie. Rainer and Ron are in the Windsor area, Frank is in Toronto and I’m in Pittsburgh. As my mother says, the neighborhood is now mostly old people – many not in good health, many without family to turn to. (My mom is 89; my dad is 90.)

St. Veronica is all boarded up and covered in graffiti. The other grammar schools in the neighborhood are closed or torn down.

Middle Image
The middle image is Franco Middonno’s photograph titled colazione, mattina delle palme – breakfast, Palm Sunday morning. And that could be my dad sitting in his basement kitchen having an old-world breakfast.

The immigrants that left Calabria in the 1940s/1950s rarely went back. There was little family left and little money to go visit. Also, if we wanted to see our relatives, all we had to do was drive down to Toronto or St. Catherines.

Almost 3 million people left Calabria between 1945 and 1985. And close to 70% of Canada’s postwar immigrants were Italians. They were from Calabria, Abruzzi and the agrarian parts of the north-east – Veneto, Friuli. In Ontario, they mainly settled in Toronto. The Northern Ontario cities of Sault Ste. Marie and Fort William were quite heavily populated by Italian immigrants.1

My family and the other immigrants began creating a Calabrian culture in Ontario. But the culture they build was based on their remembrances. Their Italian dialect became fixed. No new words were added and new ideas were described with English words. The immigrants began to speak a blended Italian-English dialect. And the new culture also became a blend of Calabrian family values and Canadian efficiencies.

My relatives in Aprigliano love to hear me speak the old Calabrese dialect. There, it’s a treasured artifact. On FB, the Apriglianesi are writing in the old tongue. It’s no longer an embarrassment rather it stands side-by-side with standard Italian. Also, there’s pride in their regionalism.

In present-day Sault Ste Marie, young families have made the west-end hip again. But none of these hipsters grow gardens or speak Italian. Manicured lawns and flower-beds surround their homes. The old Calabrese dialect, the blended Italian-English are avoided. This generation identifies as Canadian and this generation is less interested in the extended family.

Right Image
The image on the right is the steel mill that defined our young lives in Northern Ontario and the rooftops the Italian built when they moved into the west-end. The bungalow was the design of the times. And what the immigrants added to this simple plan was a basement with an eat-in kitchen, a cantina, and a cold-cellar. The kitchen mirrored the cucina rustica of old Calabria. The cantina was for their wine barrels and demijohns; and the cold-cellar was for the salami, the tomato sauce and the preserves. The salaries at the steel mill made it all possible.

But what the immigrants didn’t know was that back in post-war Calabria their fellow countrymen were abandoning the old ways, the old hilltop towns and moving into cities with supermarkets and super-highways. The immigrants’ remembered-world belonged to the past.

The steel mill also gave us children the option of a university education. And my generation ran to Windsor, London, Waterloo, Toronto, the United States. We ran from the isolation; from the immigrant community.

My mother believed that immigrating to Canada would offer opportunities to maintain the extended family, the close-knit community she grew up with. We went to Northern Ontario because her parents were there; we went to Northern Ontario because others from Aprigliano were there. But the economic flush of the 1960’s changed all that. Her son went off to school in New York City and her youngest daughter settled in Toronto. She didn’t understand the moving away and when she’d ask me, I would say that my leaving Canada was like her leaving Calabria. She explained that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way; that it wasn’t what she had expected.

But as I walk the streets of the west-end with my cameras and attitude, I’m OK that it happened this way.

1  Wikipedia, Canadian Government website

Hypocrisy (essay-5)

April 20, 2016 commentary

hypocricy

Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Word Count – 828

Last Friday, Bernie Sanders ran off to the Vatican.

Yes, he was invited to speak about moral economics at a conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. But this is the Senator from Vermont who styles himself as the honest, anti-corruption, pure candidate. This is the candidate for the Democratic nomination who rants against Wall Street, against the one-percenters, against those who have raped and pillage the American middle-class and against Hillary Clinton and her ties to these American plutocrats. Then Bernie, what are you doing traveling to Rome and hanging out with the most corrupt of human institutions; a group of one-percenters so exclusive, it even reject half of the human population? Bernie what are you doing hanging out with the group that has sheltered pedophile for years; that has subjugated women for millennium; that has preached the words of Jesus Christ, but has lived in splendor, in the Renaissance palaces?

In 1944, the Allies bombed the monastery of Monte Cassino, in six months Holy Mother Church had rebuilt it. Meanwhile southern Italy was starving. My parents and their contemporaries never talked about the Church coming to their assistance. No, they still talk about the parish-priest who had a cook and house-cleaner all through the war. The one-percenters were too busy to worry about Italy’s starving people. They were busy fluffing up their gold-embroidered capes so that they could attend the re-opening of the refurbished monastery south-east of Rome. (The gold-leaf in the chapel alone, could have fed hundreds of thousands.)

Senator Sanders has warned against the evils of a corrupt campaign-financing system; he has criticized Bibi Netanyahu for his war-mongering, his treatment of the Palestinians; he has energized young Americans and pulled them into the Democratic primary; he has proposed a social-welfare state that comes to the assistance of average Americans; he has identified the fault-lines in the American economic distribution system. All good and honorable ideas. But he is unwilling to consider any good the American economic systems have created. And for me, it’s this unwillingness, this blinders approach that is at the center of my anger with the Senator and his trip to the Vatican. He can’t overlook Wall Street’s evils, but he can easily overlook the evils of the Roman Church. Evils that include a Pope who put the interest of his institution over those of millions of Jews. While Germans soldiers filled rail-cars the Roman Pope negotiated the safety of the Vatican with the Führer.

But then, I don’t understand American Jews’ and American Non-Catholics’ swooning over Pope Francis. Yeah, he is pushing the monarchy, known as the Roman Catholic Church, towards the poor, but he’s one man. Cardinals and Bishops still live in palaces; are still attended by servants; still ride in limousines. Their life-style is closer to the life-style of Jamie Dimon, president and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase, than to the life-style of ordinary Catholics. And yet Senator Sanders pinpointed one dot in this vast canvas, a dot that is consistent with his political message. The Washington Post’s Katrina vanden Heuvel  in her piece, gave Sanders’ narrow vision legitimacy. She placed the Sanders’ visit within the Church’s nineteen century pro-workers’ context. That’s very nice. But Mother Church has come a long way from that stance. Ask the teachers at America’s Catholic schools. They are paid well below the national average, health-care is scrutinized for contraceptives and other pregnancy related options and their retirement benefits are dismal. Senator Sanders, how can you accept the invitation of an organization that promotes these types of worker exploitations? (In modern America, the Church has given middle-class families, who don’t want to send their children to public schools, the option of going to a Catholic school. According to the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the average cost of Catholic elementary school tuition is $3,673 per pupil. In 1970, by contrast, a Catholic elementary education cost just $100. This 3,573 percent increase. A gigantic increase attributed to a dramatic decrease in nuns, monks and priests. All these Religious men and women had to be replaced with lay teachers who needed paid.)

And what are we supposed to do about the American children who were raped by the pedophile priests; the poor Irish women who were exploited by the holy nuns in charge of their care; the Australian boys who were sodomized by the Catholic priests in charge of the orphanages; the Native Americans and Native Canadians who were locked up in Catholic reform schools; the Conversos who were horribly tortured by the papal legates of Sixtus IV; and the Muslims and Jews who were slaughtered by the armies of Innocent II and Eugenius III? Do we hold all those questions, because the topic is workers’ rights and degradation of the environment? Senator Sanders, Ms. vanden Heuvel why is Wall Street’s reign of terror any different than Holy Mother Church’s reign of terror? And Senator, why didn’t you just say, “No”?

Listening for the New-told Lies (essay-4)

April 12, 2016 commentary

caduti2

come writers and critics
who prophesize with your pen

and keep your eyes wide
the chance won’t come again

the line it is drawn
the curse it is cast

as the present now
will later be past

the order is
rapidly fadin’

Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Word Count – 878

Throughout Italy, every town has a World-War-One memorial. (650,000 Italian soldiers died in WWI.) The term Ai Caduti – to the fallen – is how these monuments are referred to. The image above is the WWI monument in the town of Montegranaro in Le Marche.

The monument and the Great War it commemorates, conjure up two remembrances – one from Season Three of Upstairs Downstairs and one from Robert Graves’ I Claudius.

The son of the upstairs, Edwardian family is talking about enlisting, because the war on the continent is for a noble cause. Also, England is on the cusp of modernity, on the cusp of world domination and her sons and daughters are needed on the fields of France; are needed to vanquish the Beastly Hun. James and his contemporaries run, heads high, naiveté fluttering, to the fields of Flanders.
Claudius is dying so he’s trying to put safeguards in place to protect his young son from assassination and from the coming chaos. But Britannicus rejects his father’s precautions. He and his contemporaries see assassins as phantoms of the old generation. Modern, Imperial Rome is free of boggy-men; the Pax Romana governs the world. And Britannicus believes Nero an honorable man.

But war and revolution destroyed early-twentieth century Europe; and the chaos that followed destroyed the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Europe was plunged into thirty years of war and Rome was choked by internal conflicts, conspiracies and civil wars. The revolutions decimated the societies the previous generation had built; the revolutions unleashed the fires that destroyed the privileged, the poor, the innocent.

I don’t believe in revolutions. History tells me they tear apart rather societies not rebuild them.

I think American is again on the cusp of radical change and again its young believe that they, and only they, understand the modern world. And these Millennials, like their hippie predecessors, believe that a new-world order can only augment their current freedoms, their prodigious privileges. In this rarefied climate, revolution is a noble endeavor, a heart-string longing, a clarion call.

On the right, Trump preaches a society free of privilege, free of minorities, free of women bosses. A white-only, Protestant America ruled by old white men. And his followers insist that if their prophet is denied the nomination in Cleveland, they will bring down the Republican Convention. On the left, the kids and the Hollywood elites have enlisted, by the thousands, in Sander’s revolutionary army. And if their prophet isn’t nominated by the Democratic Convention in the City of Brotherly Love, they will walk away hurling Mercutio’s curse, “A plague o’ both your houses!

The America their parents built is flawed – a shadow of its former self. The new heralds – the pure Bernie, the virginal Donald – will lead the country out of darkness, out of servitude and into the promised land.

The 1960’s revolution gave us great wealth and civil rights. We live surrounded by flat-screens, tablets, smart-phones, air conditioning, social-media. But the tolls were paid by Vietnam War veterans, AIDS patients, young men in the urban ghettos, rural families and poor women.

I’m sympathetic to Sanders’ ideas, but their prophet spells out only the positives. The problems – the hard work ahead, the set-backs, Congressional Republicans, an electorate against new taxes, a minority that wants to deport 11 million people – are presented as trifles to be easily overcome. Senator Sanders what about the vulnerable, the displaced that a revolution will produce? Senator Sanders how will you control the chaos we are hurling towards?

The media shows me a Donald Trump, one campaign-stop away from creating his own storm-troopers; a Susan Sarandon proclaims that a Trump win will accelerate the coming revolution. Mr. Trump and Ms. Sarandon will not be touched by the ravages of civil war. They will sit in their towers and watch as the country burns, as women are disenfranchised, as innocents are massacred, as minorities are shoved into transports and driven to the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico.

A Sanders presidency will have to address the chaos, the rage he and Donald Trump have unleashed. I don’t believe Senator Sanders is capable of doing that. Bernie reminds me of the amiable school principal whom the parents all love, but whom staff hates. He cannot manage the teachers who work for him and the work environment is rife with ruinous factions and petty squabbles.

The soldier in the monument is releasing a dove. This is the only Italian WWI monument I’ve seen that suggests peace. Most call forth sadness; many itemize the fallen.

Twenty-first century America is at a crossroads. We are rich; we are fat; we are bored; we are angry. We don’t really care about our children, the poor, minorities, women. We just want to continue sitting in our Lazy-boys, eating chips, watching porn, betting on fantasy football. We just want to buy and buy. In the stock-market, we celebrate the heights our corporations have scaled; in Congress, we celebrate their power; at the mall we covet their products. The new iPhone is only $500. I need it.  Who cares that the corporations, the American worker built, moved their manufacturing to China and their service-centers to India? My new iPhone has a gold back.

No presidential candidate is offering the country a path to moderation, a path to reconciliation.

i wanted magic shows and miracles
mirages to touch

i wanted such a little thing from life
i wanted so much

A Beached Whale (essay-3)

March 20, 2016 commentary

What a piece of work is man
How noble in reason
How infinite in faculties
In form and moving
How express and admirable
In action how like an angel
In apprehension how like a god
The beauty of the world
The paragon of animals

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark – Act II, Scene II

Sunday, March 20, 2016
Word Count – 689

After spending a week in Kaua’i, there are many images in my head, but the most jarring ones are of very overweight, white males in their 40’s and 50’s. The image above was taken at Ke’e Beach and he was one of many men with huge bellies or with rolls and rolls of fat. The skin is so tight over a massive protuberance that made the seeing a bug-eyed experience. When did this happen? When did American males of a certain age become blimps? When did it become OK to lie on the sands like a beached-whale? When did it become sexually OK to appear half-naked with a whale-like body?

There was a time in America when hard work defined who we were; when sacrifice and delayed gratification were the hallmarks of empire builders; when the ideal male was lean and sinewy; when we didn’t have time to lie on a beach and bake in the tropical sun. But that time is gone and today we work in air-conditioned offices, sit on plush chairs and push keys; we feel good when we order diet instead of regular Coke; we have Amazon deliver next-day; and fat people are no longer socially unacceptable. As a matter of fact, people aren’t fat, they’re horizontally challenged; girls with big butts are chic. Welcome to 21st century America.

I want to believe that the march to obesity started back in the late 70’s/early 80’s when the American food giants gifted us with that amazing convenience called fast-food. (I was living in Brooklyn and we all wanted to get out to the suburbs to eat at the golden arches.) I remember friends taking their children to McDonald’s, Roy Rogers, Burger King on a regular basis. Happy Meals, roast-beef burgers and crown were all desirable configurations, options and toys. I remember when Chicken McNuggets were introduced and we would run up to the shopping center for a lunch of mcnuggets and fries. (Wendy’s was considered the healthy fast-food and it had a girl’s name. The high-brows could go there and not feel bad.) And back then, no one talked about nutritional bankruptcy, trans-fats or artery clogging.

The new foods were the latest fad for a generation raised on fads. But the children became guinea-pigs for the industrial-food giants. The children on the late 70’s/early 80’s had no say on what their parents fed them. And the parents had no idea what the new foods would do to their children’s metabolisms, to their children’s bodies. And now, we ring our hands, run news-clips, design cars for the new American body and argue and argue.

There’s the argument the holier-than-thous make that it’s all about will power and there’s the argument that the Republicans make that corporations should have no restrictions on what they produce, because the consumer is free to choose. Neither group wants to talk about the addictive nature of the ingredients in fast-foods; neither group wants to talk about the power of advertisements, of social media; neither group wants to talk about the heath cost of the obesity epidemic, of the diabetes epidemic, the spiking mortality rate among the poor who now eat processed-foods for the majority of their meals. And the noise is the perfect distraction for the food giants.

There’s also a political dimension to the obesity argument. In America, consumption is our GOD. American is about buying and consuming as much as possible. (Why do we pay no attention to old people? They have lost their consumer power.) In Kaua’i consumption takes the form of time-shares, million-dollar homes on golf-courses, gated-communities, condos and condos and condos. All these accommodations have ensuites and vast networks of pools and saunas for their clients. The economy of the island is catering to the hordes of mainlanders that fly in to spend a week or two at the time-shares, the million-dollar homes, the condos, the fancy hotels. And the target audience for these amenities is the over-indulged middle-class. And is it any wonder that one demonstrates his/her membership in the over-indulged middle-class with his/her distended body? Fat rolls and whale-like dimensions are credentials of membership.

A Real Revolution (essay-2)

February 4, 2016 commentary

Thursday, February 4, 2016
Word Count – 773

You say you want a revolution …

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the political primary process and the subsequent presidential election. And a question from Ruth Marcus’ January 29 Column in the Washington Post both stirs and summarizes my ramblings.

Why would voters, after watching Obama’s excruciating experience with congressional Republicans,
believe that Sanders could deliver his promised “political revolution”?

There are many things I like about Senator Sanders – his message of fairness, his outrage over inequality and corporate abuses. But the naiveté, the ideology and the purity-of-conviction that he and his supporters insist on make me apprehensive. What I want to say to his college supporters is, “Get real kiddies, you gotta stop thinking like children, you gotta stop speaking like children. The country needs adults who can let go of childish ways.” (Guess even an old curmudgeon, for whom English was not his first language, can reference Scripture.) “Kiddies, that stuffy, ivory-tower air is going to your heads and making you as rigid as the Iowa Evangelicals. Why, for example, do you revile Hillary Clinton? Just because she came to marriage equality and to the Trans-Pacific Partnership later than the Senator? What are we to understand, that in your world-view there is no evolving, no wisdom with reflection? The purity stance is so condescending. (Sorry the correct term, as far as the millennials go, is authentic. OK, The authenticity stance is so condescending. Is that more hipsterish?) And the naiveté about campaign financing is unbelievably naive. “You want candidates to run a national campaign and finance it how? Sorry, you want it financed by small individual donations because those are more pure than the donations of millionaires and billionaires. What, you’re not gonna insist that a President Sanders do what you want? I forgot, your insistence is right, everyone else’s is corrupt and wrong.” What’s needed, in this transition between 1950’s America and the 21st century, is someone who can govern within the structure and make changes. Someone who knows that the system is rigged, but can still undo the prejudices and shortcomings inherent in our modern democracy. Not someone who wants to stand outside and yell, “Vote for me, I’m a democratic socialist.”

If Senator Sanders really wanted a revolution, he would advocate for a Constitutional Convention suggest that states could opt out of the union, push for electronic voting, demand that voter registration happens at birth. (What is so revolutionary about taxing the wealthy? In the 1950’s wealth was taxed at the 70% level.) But he pretends that his ideas are radical and that he can make a revolution if everyone turns out to vote. Because of course everyone will turn out to vote and the vested interests will just lie down and let him walk all over them, just like they did for Barack Obama. OMG what have we become? Is this what the Woodstock generation has created – a bunch of naive pampered children who have no understanding of what a revolution really is; who have no idea what a true revolution looks like?

To me, Bernie Sanders’ claim to break up the big banks and to increase taxes and Donald Trump’s claim to deport 11 million and to build a great, great wall on the southern border are pipe-dreams without a strategy for making them happen. And the strategies are vague – tax increases and getting Mexico to pay for the wall – yeah that’s gonna happen. And why would the House or Senate allow Sanders or Trump their agendas? Does Bernie or Donald have a magic wand? Did the House and Senate lose their millionaires’ shackles when Bernie and Donald announced their candidacies? Oh, let me ask a more cynical question – why are Trump’s claims dismissed as unreal, but Sanders’ are given credence. Is it because we look down our noses at Trump and his white, non-educated supporters, but affiliate with Sanders’ young, white, college-educated kiddies? To me, Trump and Sanders are two sides of the same coin. The coin is anger and resentment at a government hijacked by the rich and famous. But Bernie and Donald, the outsiders, will perpetuate the non-function, the fighting, the atrophy. LBJ was able to do the things he did, because he knew the system and he knew how to make it work to pass his legislation. He didn’t spend his time grandstanding, credentialing about not-being-of-the-system.

Come on Bernie, if you really want a revolution, call for a Constitutional Convention, give the states the option to opt out of the union, let people vote online, let voter registration be automatic with birth and let voter registration be irrevocable. Bernie, at this point, your tilting at windmills.

Dual Citizenship (essay-1)

November 27, 2014 commentary

Thursday, November 27, 2014
Word Count – 1,083

My family left Calabria in 1957 for the wonders and promise of America. But, we ended up in northern Ontario, in Sault Ste Marie. Back in Calabria, we had no idea that Canada was a separate country. Everyone used the term america generically. Even today, many of my cousins in Aprigliano who are of my parents’ generation still use the all-inclusive term. And it annoys my Canadians relatives to no end. I laugh and secretly think – get over it, we all know Canada is the 51st state.

What I didn’t realize for a long time was that the War and its aftermath were the determining factors in my family leaving Calabria. And even though my parents never fooled themselves into believing that the streets in American were paved with gold, they also never connected, for their children, their experience with the post-War devastation and resulting poverty, to their leaving.

The immigrant identity has been with me since I was 8 years old. My time in northern Ontario was about being different, but pushing away from those foreign roots and towards assimilation. The successful families divested themselves of their mother tongue, their strange foods, their old-world ways and quickly transitioned to the manners of the white-bread majority. The modern 1950′s Canadian immigrant family wanted their children to marry English.

As a teenager in Sault Ste Marie, I remember being embarrassed whenever my mom packed a sandwich of fried eggplant. I loved fried eggplant on my mom’s home-made, but eating it at a cafeteria table full of English boys was difficult. I’d sit in the corner closest to the railing, away from prying eyes and take a bite, quickly returning the sandwich to the wax paper wrapping. I also remember asking my friend and neighbor Giselle C. out on a date, but she was not allowed to go, because her family believed I had gone over to the other side; I was no longer Italian enough. I had no accent, knew all the foreign words and I hung out with both Italian and English kids.

On the flight to Rome, I read Joseph Luzzi’s new book My Two Italies. In the first part of the book he writes of his difficulty reconciling the Italy of the Renaissance and the Italy of his Calabrian parents. There were two Italies separate and not equal; northern Italy was the real and southern Italy the faux. And Calabrians were not allowed to claim Michelangelo or Da Vinci as their own. That confusion is easy to see given that our parents never told us that the reason they left their homeland was because of the aftermath of the War. Nowhere in Luzzi’s book is there a connection between the wave of immigrants leaving Calabria and the devastation left by Mussolini, Hitler and the Allies. Without that connection it was easy to fill the vacuum with a sense of less-than, with a feeling of outsider, with an inferiority and a reluctance to claim or take pride in our heritage.

In Sicily we explored the Baroque cities of La Val di Noto; in Naples we explored Ercolano, the Museo Archeologico and the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte. What I didn’t expect in either place was the dialect everyone spoke. For years, I’ve thought that my Calabrian dialect was an inferior version of Italian and that it was restricted to the contadini of the hill-towns around Cosenza. (I’ve always prided myself on being able to speak both the dialect and modern Italian even if I spent much energy and mental gymnastics figuring out when and where to use which.) But, in Sicily and in Naples everyone talked using what I thought was a Calabrian dialect. Now I know that it’s the dialect of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and still widely and proudly used. Whoa! The dialect my parents and their contemporaries brought with them wasn’t a mountain twang, but a legitimate version of the vernacular spoken in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It was great fun speaking dialect again with its ending u-sounds replacing the soft o‘s of modern Italian. Zio Michele became the zu Michele of my childhood, of my first language. I could talk without mentally translating from English to Calabrese to Italian.

The last item to challenge is the food snobbery of the expats. I read several blogs by Americans who have landed in Italy and chosen to live there. It’s not unusual for this group to whine about modern Italy and the Italian-Americans that travel back. (The expats remind me of converts who in their new faith become orthodox proselytizers who take their Paul-of-Tarsus role very seriously.) Their disdain is hurled at those travelers who look for American-Italian dishes in Italy, especially anyone crude enough to ask for spaghetti-and-meatballs. The expats’ reaction, with its adolescent superiority and wish for banishment, is worthy of a 9th grader. There seems to be no understanding or genuine pride in the work the immigrants did to introduce Italian food into the New World. All they see is a bastardization of their Italian ideal and react. And yes in that introduction the Calabrese and Neapolitans made changes, adaptions and modifications that expanded the markets; that made Italian style food the norm in a vast new country. Yes, no one in Italy eats meatballs with their pasta, so what that they do in America. That doesn’t mean that the immigrants that introduced these foods into their adopted homeland didn’t know that in Italy pasta and meat aren’t mixed. In my family we never eat spaghetti-and-meatballs. My parents would never think of mixing these two items. So what that American restaurants serve this ubiquitous dish; it’s called knowing your audience; making good economic decisions; being a smart businessman. Those immigrant families that left the destitute Mezzogiorno have been wildly successful in their adopted land and because of them y’all can go back to live in Italy and post blogs about those embarrassing American tourists.

It’s time for a new lens. We immigrants are citizens of two worlds. Let’s celebrate the fact that we know how to live in both the US and modern Italy. Let’s focus on the fact that Michelangelo and Da Vinci were from regular hard-working families; we come from a courageous stock of Italians who trusted in their skills and ingenuity and transformed the new world making it hospitable for the next generation. We are the children those immigrants dreamed of when they left their homeland with tear in their eyes.