A Most Uncivil War


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What a spectacle! There has probably been nothing like it in the American Republic since the antebellum era in the 1850s. The pent-up fears, hatreds and bigotries–across racial, ethnic and gender lines–have been bared and are approaching a tipping point that leaves even a jaundiced reporter’s eye such as mine amazed and uncertain as to the outcome.

The old political and social order seems to be splitting at the seams, and what would replace it seems equally fraught.

Until a week ago, I had spent the last two months far away from the homeland, and I was only periodically in touch with the daily unfolding chaos in the Republican presidential race. It seemed not only far away to me, but also a partisan and pedestrian matter on the periphery of reality–something that would be cleared up by the time I returned home.

I should have known better. Yes, it was obvious even from afar that the cynical politics of division that has been played by the Republican  Party for decades had amply fertalized the ground that was now sprouting the current insane crop of presidential contenders. But there surely would be certain boundaries of sanity that limited and channeled the hysteria, right?

Wrong! As I looked today at the image of a woman supporter of Donald Trump giving the Nazi salute (her post-facto explanation totally unconvincing), I realized just how much deranged hatred has underpinned the Republican Party’s political strategy. That that strategy, which not so long ago seemed carefully calibrated, has now overwhelmed the party itself is of little consolation.  The Republicans have cynically played the Jacobins’ game for decades by deftly using the coded language of division and bigotry (that Nazi salute clearly was not “politically correct,” was it?), and they now are trying to deal with the result, their very own Robspierre (or two).

The alarmed reaction from the political left (and apparently even the center-right) of the American political spectrum has been mounting as fears of a catasrophic electoral result have risen. And the very real battle lines between those who are America’s collateral damage of globalization (that would be mostly undereducated white males still living in an hallucinatory and lost past) and the rest of the society that experiences the world as it really exists has been clearly drawn.

It seems like a last stand for the bigots and those who mistakenly assume that their skin color, gender  and place of birth amount to an irrevocable gift; but we’re about to find out how many of them are actually out there.

Whatever the outcome, this is a breathtaking moment in American history, and potentially a revolutionary one.


The Super-Stupor Bowl


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The Super Bowl this year was pretty super–a tight battle until nearly the end, an early and controversial ruling on the field that was somehow confirmed after a challenge and video review, the underdog Denver Broncos, with their ancient field general piecing together some points and, mostly, a fierce defensive contest won by the Broncos, who forced the Carolina Panthers into key turnovers to emerge as the surprise winners.

It was a fitting game for the event’s 50th anniversary, and one of the infrequent instances when the game actually has lived up to the name.

And here, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, it was also a stupor bowl. Unlike parties in the United States, the game party here began at about 5:30 a.m. Monday morning, before dawn. In a bar. With the beer taps flowing and the mixed drinks swirling.

For a mere $16 U.S. it was an open bar from opening hour, and the crowd of mostly American tourists (there were some Brits and Aussies; they didn’t seem to have the slightest understanding or interest in the game, but clearly viewed a Super Bowl party as a perfectly good excuse for a sunrise drink or three) had a collective thirst that easily matched the intesity of the on-field action.

By the end of the first quarter, the volume in the bar had risen to a shout, and it only got louder as the game went on. Drinks piled upon drinks at the table, and by the end of the second quarter, attention to the game had slipped considerably. The always hyped half time show looked liked it must have sounded good, especially Beyonce and her leggy dancers, but the boozed up crowd drowned out any hope I had of hearing the show.

By the third quarter, a few of the young New York City finance industry guys at my table were sagging like beleagured defensive linemen under a relentless offensive ground attack. One, a pretty tall guy who was in front of me, went from sitting upright at the start of the game to taking little naps with his head against the chair in front of him. Maybe it was just the early hour. More likely, however, it was the multiple beers, screwdrivers and vodkas on ice downed at an hour before he’d normally be expected to even show up for work on his trading desk.

By late fourth-quarter, those of us who had behaved got to see the final humbling of the Panthers and their dynamic quarterback, Cam Newton. For the others, it was a time to stare at the undrunk ansenal of booze they’d built up by last call, half of it untouched as the reality of early morning inebriation began to take its toll. The bar did rouse itself–drunkards included–to pump out at the end of the game a brief, bizarre chant of “USA, USA!” Why, I’m still not sure.

I’ve long called the NFL’s title game the Stupor Bowl because so often they’re one-sided, non-contests. Today, however, it was a Super-Stupor Bowl, with both the game and the bar crowd pretty entertaining. I left it sober, headed for a cafe and a post-game cappuchino.





Paradise Last


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As getaways go, our small island off the coast of Thailand was nearly perfect–a long stretch of white sandy beach, calm, crystal clear and warm water for swimming, rock formations close to shore for snorkling.

And it was a quiet little paradise, unlike just about every other island along the Thai coast in the Andaman Sea, where, we were told repeatedly by fellow travelers, the partying never stops, and the sound systems keep the 4/4 beats and breaks going until the wee hours of every morning.

True, we were staying at what was called an island “resort,” but that designation didn’t mean a swimming pool with floating bar, or lounge chairs, or any of the other luxuries we’d normally associate with the word.

Instead, we had a comfy bungalow–one of eleven on a property surrounded by dense tropical forest–towels, a fan, and a common dining area. It was a five-minute walk along a narrow path to the beach.

We’d arrived from the mainland via a precarious mid-sea transfer from a ferry to a longtail boat, juggling our luggage and ourselves as we maneuvered gingerly between the two mismatched vessels. When we landed on the island’s beach and waded into the water we were met onshore not by a smiling hotel employee with a welcome drink, but by a plain sign pointing to the hotel. It was mid-afternoon, and there were only a few people on the beach. Perfect!

The island had no town and only another three or four resorts, each with a restaurant to feed its guests. There was one mini-mart with only the barest selection of goods for sale. Also perfect!

And there was virtually no piped music, save for the low-volume playlists at the restaurants. We could talk at will and without having to shout to each other and our fellow flashpackers and backpackers.

Some of whom told us about the party vibe that seems to have engulfed the archipelago’s other islands. Yes, one could find places on those islands where there was relative peace and quiet, but those were said to be rare pockets of tranquility among the constant din. Places like Phuket, which my wife remembers as once being  an island of total tranquility, are now non-stop party destinations for a mostly young, hedonistic crowd.

Which left our little island as the one place that Thai and foreign entrpreneurs had not yet managed to despoil. Maybe that was because at least a good chunk, if not all, of the island is a national park, which, in theory, should prevent over-development. Or maybe it was just because they hadn’t yet gotten around to our island.

But already there were signs that this little paradise was on the development radar. By late morning, we watched the day trippers (foreigners and Thais) arrive in speedboats, old wooden ferries and longboats, the crews setting up tables for food and drink and the guests crowding between the vessels to swim and sprawling on the beach to broil under the relentless Thai sun. By early afternoon they’d depart but, unfortunately, not with all the plastic bottles they’d brought with them, left strewn about the sand.

And our hotel? The owner was busy pouring cement into holes along the five-minute walk to the beach to support lamps to illuminate the path. On our next visit, we won’t be able to stop as we did at night and look up to see the stars in the sky; street lights are about to block the view. The hotel is also about to upgrade its Internet service, so that more than one user at any one time can access email and the Web. I can already envision all the guests staring into their portable devices instead of striking up a conversation with strangers.

In the end, it seems unstoppable. Our little last paradise seems destined to become just one more paradise lost.






Putting Buddha On Hold


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Chiang Mai, Thailand is a city of hundreds of Buddhist temples, some dating back centuries. So it was not surprising that on an evening walk through the old city we came upon one just off the main tourist road–an island of serenity amid the pulsing street life of never-ending traffic, shops stuffed to the gills with merchandise for tourists, and way too many brightly lit restaurants.

Taking off our shoes, we climbed the stairs to the temple, facing a giant gold image of the Buddha. We stepped into the holy place, lured by the sound of monks chanting in the sing-song  monotone style of the religion.

There were three middle-aged monks at prayer–two kneeling in their saffron colored robes before the Buddha and one other, a good bit more portly than the others, sitting on a bench. We took our places alongside two other visitors at the side of the temple, crossed our legs (not as easy as it used to be), closed our eyes, and let the moment envelop us.

We soon heard a ring and opened our eyes to see: was it a bell? a chime?

The heavy-set monk was reaching deep into the folds of his robes groping for something as the ringing continued. I expected he was grasping for some sort of religious talisman that would deepen the experience.

But, nah, it was his cell phone, which he proceeded to answer and then begin a loud, extended conversation, talking and laughing away as his two fellow monks continued their devotional.

Eventually, the prayers stopped. The two monks, us visitors and the Buddha were left waiting for the conversation to end. Which, a little later, it did. Phone call ended, our seated monk seemed to pick up where he had left off, and the two monks joined in.

I had to chuckle at the irony of the timeless serenity of the place and the moment being put on hold for the transitory pleasure of answering a phone call. Before leaving, I looked up one more time. I thought I saw a little smile on the face of the Buddha, too.



Dog Day Afternoon

Saturday afternoon in Bangkok, Thailand: hot and humid, on a crowded ferry bringing us back to the mainland city from a small community still on the mainland but feeling like an island along the contorted path of the Chao Phraya River.

We were feeling tired and hungry, despite the aisles of food stalls we had passed during a visit to one of the city’s seemingly countless food markets. Too much oil and too many unnamed animal parts for our Western stomachs to handle less than 48 hours after arriving from the States.

The ferry was jam packed, not just with riders on foot, but with dozens of motor bikes, all revving their engines and maneuvering to exit first once the ferry docked.

That didn’t stop my wife, who was in dire need of a pit stop. She weaved her way through the motorcycles and walkers, sped off the pier and headed down a road that she hoped would lead to public facilities.

I was some paces behind, hemmed in by the bikes, and walking a bit gingerly in a pair of sandals that threatened to fall apart on me.

So my bride impatiently marched on ahead of the mob, her head in the air instead of looking ahead. And that’s when it happened. Suddenly, as if stuck by a sniper’s bullet, down she went, arms flailing, body flipping over.

But I was not witnessing a news headline in this age of fear. There was no sniper, no shot, no American tourist brought down. Instead, what there was was a poor dog, who had been lying peacefully in the broiling sun (why it was doing so I didn’t get to ask), suddenly to become an unexpected speedbump my wife hadn’t noticed.

Even as my wife tumbled to the ground, I heard the surprised yelp of the mangy creature, who beat a hasty exit. Of more immediate concern, of course, was my wife’s condition. It had been quite a fall. She was slightly bleeding from a scrape of the knee, and her eyeglasses were flung off from the sudden collision of the side of her head with the concrete road.

She was in some pain, in a little shock, and sporting a nasty mark on her left eye. But the local Thais were quick to the rescue, helping me get her upright and seated. An elderly woman at the adjacent Buddhist temple ran off and quickly returned with some iodine for the cut on the knee. A vendor of sweetened, flavored shaved ice filled a plastic envelope with ice, which we applied to her knee and then left eye. A cabdriver pulled up and we were able to get her into his cab. This was all done with a level of concern and kindness to strangers that was truly endearing.

After awhile, the suddeness of the mishap began to wear off, replaced by a black eye. And as the immediate shock wore off, my wife began to focus on the culprit. At first, it was the mangy mutt, who I guess should have seen an inattentive tourist headed its way and moved to avoid a collision, much like driverless cars are said to be able to do.

But the dog was just the low-lying fruit, and not a sufficiently culpable culprit. And it didn’t take long to find one, someone who was close at hand–me.

Somehow, I should have been there, my wife’s seeing eye dog, who could have led her around the sleeping hazard. But where was I? Yards to the rear, yet again failing my husbandly duty.

But had I failed? I think not. After all, had I not provided her once more with her Easy Button, that go-to mate who gets to play the fall guy for any misadventure?

In fact, I think I’d played my part rather well–not around in time to actually help, but there in enough time to provide some TLC after the fall, and then to absorb the slings and arrows of her misfortune.

And, I get to be reminded of the entire sequence every day, looking at that prominent shiner. Eventually, that will go away, as no serious damage was done. But I will be able to live for the next time I get to play her Jimmy Olsen, rather than her Superman…

‘Putin’s Russia’ or Russia’s Putin?

An insightful article on Russia and Putin; well argued and supported by factual information.

Russian and Eurasian Politics

photo russia putin

by Gordon M. Hahn


Western observers often use the term ‘Putin’s Russia’ in discussing developments in Russian politics, economics, society, and culture. This has become a ‘meme’ of sorts. Its use is usually an effort to imply the Russian political regime’s authoritarianism—relatively soft, in this author’s view—under Russian President Vladimir Putin. Raising the point of Putin’s authoritarianism in one’s work, preferably at the outset of any piece of writing, is requisite if one hopes to get published nowadays. The phrase ‘Putin’s Russia’ is often intended to lead the reader to make the inferences, such as ‘the Russia of Putin’, the ‘Russia that Putin controls’, ‘Putin controls Russia’, ‘Putin controls part (most) of Russian life’, or the preferable ‘Putin controls everything in Russia.’ However, but the real operational dynamic in the relationship between Putin and ‘his’ Russia is quite the reverse – ‘Russia’s Putin.’

Putin like most other Russians today…

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Say What?


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I’ve recently come across an Italian word that aptly describes what has been going on within the Republican Party “base” and among its leading candidates. The word, admittedly a mouthful, is “sgangherato.” Its most relevant translation is “unhinged.”

There is really no other way to describe the toxic stew of rhetoric, anger, fear and paranoia that the Republicans have cooked up. While all of their presidential candidates have engaged at one time or another in recent months in fear mongering, race baiting and xenophobic nationalism, it seems to have reached its apotheosis in the venomous declarations of Donald Trump–the party’s current front-runner–and Ted Cruz, who has been steadily gaining ground on Trump.

The former, as the world now knows all too well, has called for barring all Muslims from entering these United States in the wake of the San Bernadino terror attack. The latter has made the modest proposal (ala the Air Force General and right-wing hero Curtis LeMay during the Vietnam War) of “carpet bombing” the Islamic State into oblivion, notwithstanding the mind-boggling number of innocent civilian (and Muslim) casualties it would cause to those who are trapped in IS-held territory.

There is no need to restate here the near universal condemnation and criticism these proposals and threats have generated. But it is worth noting that these extremist statements have come as the candidates are vying for the loyalty and votes of Republicans who will soon begin selecting their party’s presidential nominee. It is therefore pretty clear that Trump’s and Cruz’s verbal bombs are aimed squarely at generating support among the party’s base.

Which makes it easy to take the next logical step, that being that  the extremist rhetoric reflects the xenophobia and paranoia of the party faithful, the current unhinged state of the party faithful and fellow travelers. The cheering crowd at the Trump rally where he called for the entry ban, and Cruz’s rise in the Iowa primary race are evidence enough.

The Republican “establishment”–or  what remains of it in the aftermath of the essentially fictitious Tea Party monster’s revolt against its maker–now faces the monumental task of dumping Trump and Cruz without causing a permanent schism in its ranks, or watching helplessly as one of those two seizes the nomination and leads the party to a defeat it has not experienced since the thumping of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

This is not merely a matter of strategy, but rather an effort to walk back an unhinged party cadre from its current insanity. I have little doubt that the Republican leadership will embark on such an effort. They not only will be trying to save themselves from potential oblivion as a national party, but will be working to avoid the kind of catastrophic consequences that would stem from even a failed candidacy by either Trump or Cruz.

Let’s face it: we Americans know we can get away with shaking our heads at the gains by the extreme right wing in France as a nasty social and economic problem they’ll have to sort out themselves. But the rise of an American Duce would portend serious global trouble on a scale that would far outstrip the Islamic State’s current ability to exact.

It won’t be easy for the Republicans, and I wish them well. They’ve feasted on turning rational fear of the IS terror threat into raging irrational paranoia, and that paranoia can just as easily be exploited by a fascist movement to overturn the fundamental basis of our freedoms. To the future of American democracy and its example to the rest of the world, IS poses no threat whatsoever. But we have seen our existential enemy, and it is us.

Banking, Italian Style


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We had to go to a bank today, in Italy, exchanging not a few precious American dollars for even slightly more precious European euros.

We are in southern Italy, in a town in Puglia that is the ancestral base of my wife’s family. What I remember most from the last time we were here was the drive to the house of one of my wife’s cousins. It was dusk; we weren’t exactly sure where we were going; and I had to repeatedly flash the car’s bright lights to scatter the swarms of children playing in the unlit streets. It was harrowing, for us if not for the children.

Fast forward several decades, and we’re back to a town that seems to have matured: more organized, better lit, and clearly more prosperous, with that typically charming Italian town center that mixes ancient buildings and streets of polished stone with stores glistening with upscale modern consumer goodies seen through glass front entrances.

Before we set out in this morning to visit the studio of an octogenarian sculptor who continues his prodigious output, we decided to change money so we could pay our hosts in Umbria for the house we have rented there beginning on Saturday.

We drove to bank number one. No, they did not exchange dollars for euros. We got back in the car, and drove to bank number two. No luck there, either. This town, clearly off the tourist map, does not seem to have to deal with strangers, we quickly figured.

We pushed on. The same result was with bank number three–no euros for dollars. But the workers there told us about bank number four, Banco Puglia. Surely, a bank that covers the entire province, and its biggest bank as well, would honor an exchange of our dead presidents for some of whoever or whatever was on their bills.

No such luck. Banco Puglia would only exchange the currencies if we had a bank account there. Did we want to go that far? Nah.

It was getting late for our appointment with the sculptor, so we hopped back in the car (driven by the cousin, who was the reason we were even able to locate the banks among the town’s spaghetti-like tangle of streets).

We had a lovely visit with an artist who has stayed true to his vision, mixing elements of Surrealism, assemblage art and Arte Povera into a sympathetic vision of the suffering of humankind and our degradation of the earth we live in and on. To continue to support himself, the sculptor has put his existential concerns aside, and instead chisels religious images out of walnut wood for the region’s legion of churches. (This is the only place I’ve been to in Italy, a profoundly secular country, where each church holds three masses a day, every day, and actually has worshipers who attend the services.)

After the visit, it was back home for lunch. In southern Italy, even a light lunch is a rich affair, and this was no exception: a spread of meats, cheese, bread, vegetables, fruit and wine that left us thinking of a nice little nap.

But, no! There was still that banking matter to take care of, even in the face of our protests that we could wait until we reached Umbria and worked out payment with our hosts. The cousin and her husband hit the phones, calling banks (no luck) and then, finally, a colleague of the husband, who was enlisted into the effort.

A plan was hatched. We got back in the car, picked up the colleague at his workplace, and drove to his bank. We passed through the security tubes, and then into the bank proper. A spare chamber in whites and beiges, it was filled with only men, both the bankers and their clients.

Our ringleader walked to a cubicle, and signaled us in to meet the man who presumably was the bank manager. We explained our plight, and asked for the exchange rate for our dollars. The explanation: it’s uncertain; you find out at the end of the process how many euros you get for your dollars. We pressed our case, several times. He went away, coming back eventually with a sheet of paper that showed the rate as it was in the morning. Was that the same as we’d get in the afternoon? He disappeared again. Eventually, back in his office, the answer: yes.

We agreed to the exchange. That meant we had to leave the office. Back in the public waiting area, our leader told us to hand him the dollars. The exchange would be made after he deposited our money into his bank account!

What could we do? This was family, so we had to trust their friend. We handed over the cash, and within minutes he was back in the manager’s office, doing whatever, because we couldn’t see. Eventually, another banker left the office with the friend and our money, headed for a back room.

They eventually returned, the friend to the manager’s office and the banker to the teller section. There, he whispered into the ear of a teller, who reached into a drawer, put some euros into a counting machine, and handed them to his colleague. The colleague then went into the manager’s office.

After a few more minutes, our man emerged, signaling us to follow him. Out the security tubes, one by one, we finally met. There, he handed us the receipt and the euros. It was the exact amount I’d calculated. We got back in the car, exiting at the house. Our middleman hopped into the driver’s seat, to go back to his workplace.

We climbed the stairs of the house, opening doors until we reached our bedroom. It was past time for a nap, and we gladly obliged.

Clamming Up


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Spaghetti with clams. It’s a Friday dinner tradition that goes back in our nuclear family for decades and, as hyphenated Americans of the Italian variety, is shared with generations of other families.

Tonight was no exception to the tradition. Unfortunately, there was a change for the worse in the ingredients, something that we hadn’t planned on, but one that I could see coming, and should presage a change in habits.

In the city, I can go to a fish purveyor and either pick out myself, or pretty much watch, the selection of the bivalves, ensuring a pretty high degree of quality. And,  until recently, I’ve been able to do the same at our country home while making small friendships with the guys in the seafood department of the area’s biggest supermarket.

There is a history to all of this. Going back to my life as a wage slave, the family used to arrive at our country house most Fridays typically late–9 or 10 p.m.–and the dinner tradition was kept alive by using canned clams from Korea, an easy preparation while the water boiled the pasta and the freezer chilled the white wine.

But since my emancipation a couple of years ago, we’ve had the luxury of buying fresh clams, allowing their natural juices and real flavor of the sea to meld with the olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes, providing a delicious stew for the pasta.

This was no small change for me, since the purchase of the fresh clams essentially ended my rear-guard opposition to shopping at the area supermarket in the first place.

My problem boiled down to one of semantics, because the supermarket chain is/was called Price Chopper. The name alone sent me off into a tirade against exploitive capitalism. Let’s face it, if this chain is trumpeting unbeatable its low price for the consumer, someone or something else along the line is paying the real price, be it in exploited wages and working conditions or the inhumane treatment of our fellow creatures from the animal kingdom.

Eventually, of course, I came to terms with the system. The purchase of reliably good clams simply greased the skids of my descent into a broader acceptance, silencing my conscience. Vainly, I tried to maintain my cred as a socially-conscious shopper, but the clams turned out to be the bait for my ever broader range of purchases at “the Chopper.”

But things change. This past winter, the supermarket began what would become a major overhaul and rebranding. The store was essentially gutted even as it continued to operate–think of having open heart surgery while still at work–and it was rebranded as something called “Market 32.”

The first sign of trouble with the reincarnated supermarket was with its layout. Gone was the more or less rational division of product types. Instead, what the chain was now pushing was pre-packaged prepared foodstuffs, a segment of the food industry notorious for incredible waste. If customers were shopping for items they actually wanted to cook themselves, well, good luck finding them.

And the butcher and fish departments suddenly were shrunk and mostly hidden from view. But, hey, I could still go to the fish guys and order up a dozen or so Little Neck clams, selected by hand under my watchful eye. So, what to worry about, right?

Then, last week, one of the guys I’d been dealing with regularly had to give me special service for my order, as the clams suddenly were being sold only in pre-bundled amounts in a display case. Since the display case was empty of the dozen I needed, he managed to select my clams by hand from several hidden bundles. He also alerted me to the new reality at the store.

Today, he wasn’t at work. The display case had only one bundle of a dozen clams, and that one had several cracked shells among the netted creatures. Not so good. I asked for help, and a fish department worker (I’d never seen her before), obliged by going into the freezer room and returning with a package of a dozen pre-packaged but seemingly okay clams.

Back home tonight, dinner preparation time arrived, and the clams came out of their netting to be cleaned. One was already opened and didn’t look all that appetizing, so it  was discarded. The rest were cooked in the usual broth.

But the success rate continued to drop: another one refused to open despite the intense heat, and several others that had opened on the stovetop smelled sort of funny. Not safe to eat we decided; we wound up consuming far fewer claims than we’d bought.

Fresh clams are not inexpensive, but they are essential to our Friday usual night dinners. But I can no longer trust the supply from Market 32 (aka Price Chopper). I will now have to drive further from home, and probably have to pay more, for my dozen. But I have learned a lesson. There are options beyond the mostly illusory lure of lower prices. And, if I am an educated consumer, I will choose them.