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Trouble at the Majestic
The year is 1919, the scene a decaying imperial spa in County Cork, Ireland. The owner of the Majestic Hotel is an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who cares more for his dogs and piglets than for the starved villagers who raid his potato patch by night. His beloved piglets are housed in the former squash court and fed yesterday’s pastries.
The Majestic Hotel figures in Trouble, a tragicomedy about the Irish rebellion against British rule–performed against a background of guerrilla attacks by the rebels and vicious reprisals by the British. The “Troubles” exploded again in 1970, the year that J.G.Farrell’s remarkable novel appeared.
A century after the partitioning of Ireland, amid the planetary chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, California’s vacant hotels suddenly figure in a social and economic crisis of survival.
California governor Gavin Newsom, confronting the vulnerable and potentially infectious mass of 150,000 homeless in the state, has engineered an ingenious deal. Hotels and motels, most notably Motel Six, have made available for lease some 15,000 hotel rooms for housing the most fragile homeless–the aged and those with underlying health conditions.
Newsom announced Project Roomkey at a press conference in front of a Motel Six in Campbell,California. Campbell is an unremarkable Santa Clara Valley town where I went to high school, when prune orchards were just giving way to housing tracts, highways, and the garage startups that transformed the farmland suburbs into Silicon Valley.
In the early days, Campbell, California had at least one street of “affordable housing,” inhabited by poor people, then generically called “Okies”. Gilman Avenue was a few blocks of small greyish bungalows, some with junked cars as lawn furniture. Betty the Moocher lived on Gilman. She was pallid and grimy with a plaintive, small-featured face. During lunch hour she would stand nearby, gazing silently at your sandwich. Sometimes we would give her something. It never occurred to me that she could actually have been hungry, though there were no free lunch programs then.
One of those Gilman bungalows is for sale right now as a “vintage” fixer-upper, for $1,220,000. Down half a million from its earlier listing. Most people cannot now afford any sort of home in California, but there are more free lunch programs. Just no housing.
Given the continuing pandemic lockdown, Project Roomkey hotel rooms would have been vacant anyway–a seemingly perfect solution, with FEMA ready to pay 75% of the costs. But two weeks ago only some 4,000 of the 15K available rooms were occupied. Tidy charts showed how many rooms had been leased for the project, how many were being prepared for occupancy, and the relatively few which were actually occupied.
It is not a simple process. The first challenge is the vetting of would-be occupants, by experienced social workers already overstretched by the Covid crisis. Applicants range from the responsible but roofless and medically fragile to lifelong addicts who may trash their rooms if not regularly supplied with their drugs. Medical records and background checks are needed. Staffing has to be arranged to provide food, housecleaning, medical help–and security.
Several counties have already signed onto Project Roomkey. But a number of southern California townships have rejected any use of their local hotels as homeless housing, either temporary or permanent. And anecdotal reports from some of the occupied lodgings are not good. Social distancing, along with housekeeping and private property, are unfamiliar concepts for many formerly homeless folks.
California has the fifth largest economy in the world, one of the highest costs of living in this country, and the largest number of homeless of any state. Some see this as flagrant evidence of a failed government–the inability to provide for the welfare of its least able citizens. Newsom, as governor, and earlier as mayor of San Francisco, took on homelessness as his central issue. There was the controversial Care Not Cash, which reduced cash support and increased shelter and social services. Now there is Project Roomkey.
Here in my present hometown of Berkeley, 40 homeless have moved into two Oakland hotels that are part of Project Roomkey. Each room is $186 per day, to be 75% reimbursed by FEMA. For whatever reason, Berkeley jokes aside, these are not Motel Six rooms like those claimed by other counties, which normally rent for $76 per night. Meanwhile the proposal for 16 stories of housing to be built at People’s Park brings out opponents pointing to its 50-year history as a political symbol and a refuge for the homeless.
Newsom and his allies would like to see Project Roomkey succeed and extend beyond the pandemic. This cannot happen without aligning funds from state, local, and federal sources. And so far, even money has not proven to be the answer. Homelessness was a serious problem in California long before COVID-19, and will doubtless increase afterwards, given the economic devastation of the work stoppage as well as earlier problems with local zoning and construction workers’ unions.
Bond issues for building affordable housing have been passed and then failed dismally to address the need. In California it costs $450K to construct one no-frills unit of subsidized low-cost housing. This is based on rising costs of labor and material and the expensive delays between securing funding and local approval of the project and the site. Given the cost of new construction, adapting ready-made housing seems a rational solution to the very immediate needs of California’s 150K homeless.
Some say that this apparent emergency will shrink back into perspective once our society returns to normal. Others point out that “normal” has included indifference not just to homeless encampments under our clogged freeways, but to the climate crisis, to enormous income inequality, to mass shootings, and to the continuing partitioning of our electorate that gave us Donald Trump. ∞
Through the years I had heard occasional rumors of a distant relative on my father’s side called Indian Mary. When my son the anthropologist was writing about Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, the time seemed ripe to research the rumor. On balance, and on record, there was also an ancestral Civil War general, Eugene Carr, who later fought in the American Indian wars.
More recently there was my own grandfather, reportedly a gentle man, who fought in almost every war in his lifetime. It’s a challenge to calculate how he managed to sire four boys and a girl, quite closely spaced, while on leave. An even greater challenge must have been for my small but spunky grandmother to raise them all on sporadic soldier’s allotments.
My father, late in life, chose to loathe another Civil War general who went on to slaughter Indians, George Armstrong Custer. He read everything published about Custer, who was, to be fair, loathed by many others. He and my mother travelled to various Custer sites, Gettysburg and Little Big Horn, if not to Custer’s grave at West Point. I might perhaps mention that a subsidiary interest of my father’s was the Donner Party.
It gave us both considerable satisfaction for me to assign my father to review a psycho-biography of Custer for the Berkeley Gazette, where most, but not all reviewers were my more literate friends and relatives. Alas, Evan Connell’s fine book on Custer, Son of the Morning Star, did not appear before the Gazette and its nepotistic book section folded in 1984.
The latest grand entry in the long, defiant tradition of nepotism is of course Potus 45. Whom to cite first? British journalist Matthew Norman predicts much nepotistic merriment to come: Ivanka will win the $600 million contract to supply new U.S. Army uniforms, Donald Trump Jr. will replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 dollar bill, & eleven year-old Barron & two of his teddy bears will be appointed to replace the National Security Adviser and two four-star generals in the Situation Room.
Another American general loathed by my father was Douglas MacArthur. Here the dislike was more grounded; he had served under MacArthur’s command in the Philippines and in the occupation of Japan. But it wasn’t until the Korean conflict that MacArthur’s megalomania came close to igniting a third world war. Luckily, President Truman had the courage to remove him from command before he could bomb China. (In our time the closest analogy might be some responsible general removing a president.)
It comes as no surprise to learn that P-45, as one world-class narcissist to another, has expressed his admiration for the doughty General MacArthur. He would have been a bit young to have watched the Congressional hearings that determined beyond doubt that Truman was justified in firing the general, and it’s hard to imagine Trump Sr. backing the Missouri haberdasher.
George Armstrong Custer was ranked last in his West Point graduating class, and Douglas MacArthur was first in his. But they were equals in egotism, flamboyance, and blinding self-righteousness. Custer’s oblivious bravado ended his and many hundreds of others’ lives at Little Bighorn. MacArthur was booted before he could make the fatal decision to bomb China. Like other self-promoting egotists, MacArthur later considered running for president, but had the brains to decide against it in the end.
Shortly before my father shipped out to the Pacific, I remember awakening, wailing, from a dream of a tractor, or a tank—ratcheting up the screen of my bedroom window. And one morning as I was playing alone in the courtyard of our apartment building, a moving van began to back slowly toward the wall behind me. In each case, I waited anxiously to be crushed by a large machine. This would have been wartime San Francisco.
My baby brother was still nursing after Pearl Harbor, when my father enlisted. Even in her nineties, my mother’s eyes would turn hard as she repeated that she could never forgive him for leaving. At thirty, with two children, he might have been deferred. In fact, the war did mark him and us for the rest of our lives.
Early on, even before he was first posted to Alaska, he stopped eating. My mother was summoned, and we went to to visit him in a Vancouver hospital. In some gloomy Kodak prints, we are sitting on a porch, my father rail-thin in his dark uniform, and my mother, also thin, clearly trying to look cheerful. She did get him to eat again, so that he could be sent back to the war, in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines, where he contracted malaria.
Meanwhile, behind our cottage in Santa Cruz, California, my mother planted a victory garden full of zucchini, chard, beans, and tomatoes. Neighbors to the west sometimes sent my dimpled little brother home with his overalls stuffed with fresh corn and secured around his ankles, while I steamed with jealousy. The other neighbors were friendly but a bit odd. Mrs. Fertig was a health food convert and often suggested to my dubious mother common weeds that would be nourishing and delicious in a salad.
My mother had taped a large pastel map to the living room wall, moving a colored pin to show where our father was stationed. During the years he was overseas, what I could remember of him mainly was the harsh wool of his uniform, its smell and feel.
One balmy Santa Cruz night, we were allowed to stay up late. Our father was coming home. Finally the screen door creaked, and there he was, hugging us all tight against his scratchy wool uniform. He’d brought us two glass animals filled with tiny candies. Of course I immediately coveted Bill’s puppy and despised my kitten.
Eventually he opened his foot locker and pulled out, well, booty, from Japan—silk kimonos, platform sandals, inlaid chopsticks, and, I think, a sword.
In the months just after his return, we spent day after day at the beach. Every day after school, he would read to me tirelessly, mostly from the Oz books, as if making up for the years lost in the war.
After the war, when my father found a job as a resident engineer with the state highway department, we moved back to Santa Cruz, where much post-war construction was underway, asphalt beginning to cover the state. Occasionally we stopped by to see him on a site, where he usually worked out of a trailer on a hot and dusty roadbed carved out of a slope by big orange machines.
Before the war he had been studying journalism at San Jose State, but the Depression—and probably drink—had driven him out of school and into a job as a surveyor for the highway department. After the war, he needed to support his family, and a civil engineering degree had seemed a safe choice. California highways and car ownership were expanding virally. Through the years he never seemed to take any pleasure or pride in his work, and I could see why.
On our last birthdays our daughter gifted me and her father with DNA test kits. This seemed an opportunity to confirm or deny the existence of my father’s Indian ancestry —and on my mother’s side, there was a mysterious Hungarian great-grandfather who might have been a gypsy or a Jew.
The disappointing results had only one, to me rather surprising ramification. The test showed it to be extremely likely that I had ancestors among the first colonial settlers of New England. Thus I could probably qualify for membership in the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) a historically racist group that has spent many decades trying to improve its image.
At least the colonial New England connection fits with General Eugene Carr’s forbears. And I suppose it was obvious why his military nickname was the Black-bearded Cossack.
I was in the “wait and see” camp, and now we have seen.
Closest to home, the helicopters were back above Berkeley this week, along with the police from nine campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The latest techniques in protest enhancement include dramatic use of fireworks and safely contained fires.
Potus, always alert, tweeted a pre-dawn threat to defund Berkeley, for allowing and then cancelling, in the face of violent protest, the appearance of a truly scary young right-wing provocateur invited by the College Republicans. Nobody gained from the hullabaloo but the anarchist Black Bloc, of whom we’ll no doubt hear more.
Meanwhile we await Potus’s promised actions against the ongoing carnage in Syria and the globalizing terror of ISIS. Bombing ISIS does involve continued slaughter of civilians. The proposed Syrian safe zones for refugees would have to be defended. One thing he has already clarified: there’s no haven for Syrian refugees in the U.S.
In the early years of the rebellion, foreign journalists were variously expelled by the Assad regime or beheaded by the rebels. The major news organizations retreated to report on Syria from desks in Beirut or Istanbul. Only very lately have we had lucid analyses of events in Syria and the Levant. ( See Joshua Landis in TPR and Rania Khalek in FAIR.) Recent accounts explain how incoherent U.S.and U.N. interventions have only served to lengthen the conflict. There have never been “moderate” rebels to “support” with arms.
Meanwhile, no new road to peace has emerged amid the ruins of ancient cities and hardscrabble desert. But given Potus’s apparent bond with Putin, what seems likely is the restoration of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. For the ten years prior to the serial eruptions of the Arab revolution in 2010, Assad managed to keep the peace in Syria. Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and Druze, Iraqi Christians and Kurds, and Saudi versus Iranian oil interests–all were prevented from annihilating each other. Assad and his wife were popular enough to be able to appear in public without bodyguards.
Early on, Assad had outspokenly condemned the West’s war in Iraq as illegal, and even Obama never forgave him. (Two tall, slender, intelligent, somewhat arrogant men with attractive, charismatic wives…) Oil makes strange allies, but when the U.S. partners with such murderous regimes as that in Saudi Arabia, condemning the heavy-handed security measures of Assad’s generals could be seen as somewhat hypocritical.
Last week Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the Astana Rixos President Hotel. For only $1,913, including flight and hotel, I could have provided first-hand news of the conference. As it is, we had to rely on the New York Times.
“Palm trees planted indoors belied the subzero temperatures and blowing snow outside, as a flute-and-piano duo wearing evening gowns played “Strangers in the Night” and the theme from “Titanic.” Western diplomats, largely sidelined, huddled in the hotel’s Irish pub, and the United States ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was invited over Iran’s objections and attended only as an observer, avoided reporters..”
While the diplomats dance and drink in Astana, Syrian rebels amass in Idlib province in the northwest, where the Syrian government’s Minister of Reconciliation has been relocating rebels from Aleppo and Daraa.
Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus for a thousand years or so. When we stopped there for water on a hot October day in 2010, the dusty square was filled with what I gathered later were refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, Others had moved across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
Not surprising that this place would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings. A few months later, some bored Daraa boys posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to protest, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones, not unlike the chroniclers in Berkeley this week. When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out across the country and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a dreary town on the Euphrates that was once an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. In October 2010, we Americans were welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syrian lands: Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s latest conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and forced 4.8 million to flee. Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million of them, according to the UNHCR, followed by Lebanon with more than a million, and Jordan with disputed figures, some 228,000 to Iraq, 115,000 to Egypt.
Some 6.6 million have been internally displaced, driven from their homes. These would be the inhabitants of Potus’s projected Safe Zones.
A million ambitious Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe, and we read in the news just how few of them are welcomed.
The U.S., that nation founded by immigrants on the backs of its natives, has found room for some 14,000. But no more. Potus and his advisor, the Cromwell of Breitbart Manor, have closed the gates after the Syrian forbears of the likes of Steve Jobs, Paula Abdul, and Jerry Seinfeld. According to an Ellis Island Record, Selim Hosni, Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandfather. arrived in 1909 from Aleppo, Syria, aboard the S.S. Hudson with his wife and infant daughter.
In any event, this is no time for comedy. Or is it?
Map from ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)
“The Panama Papers” could be the title of a mid-century noir starring Humphrey Bogart or maybe Alec Guinness. In fact it is an ongoing opportunity for our failing news media to research juicy data on global tax evasion by the rich and unscrupulous here and abroad. The 11.5 billion documents are from the files of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and incriminate evenhandedly heads of state, corporations, and figures in sports and the art world. The prime minister of Iceland resigned immediately following exposure of his offshore bank holdings, and David Cameron has had to defend his father’s dealings. Putin seems to be condemned by association, and Bashar al Assad’s cousins are definitely enmeshed. (Much more will be revealed by the ICIJ on May 9.)
Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca
Our press, after reporting, often gleefully, on the rowdiest and least morally serious primary campaign in recent memory, now has an opportunity to reveal to the U.S. electorate the shady investments and slippery connections of donors and politicoes at home and abroad. There are no Clintons on the Panama Papers list so far, but some of their closest confreres have been named. Bernie Sanders will not have needed a tax shelter, and no doubt Donald Trump has other ways to protect his billions. Still, we can expect an exciting round of follow-the-money discoveries in the coming campaigns, in addition to the usual salacious reminders of sequential marital difficulties on the part of the major candidates.
Moral seriousness seems to be in short supply these days, not only in journalism and politics. This puts into high relief Adam Hochschild’s fine book on the Spanish Civil War. While the topic may seem remote just now, as the world warms, the Middle East implodes and Europe falters under the waves of its refugees, Hochschild focuses on a related issue: when is intervention in a foreign war justifiable?
The poorly armed Spanish Republicans were unable to prevent Generalissimo Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, from taking over. If the U.S. had officially joined Russia in reinforcing the ragtag Spanish Republican army, might that have forestalled the slaughter of the Second World War? If the U.S. had more heavily armed an elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, could the bombing of that hospital in Aleppo have been averted? It seems safe to say that in each case, the only certain outcome would have been greater bloodshed.
During demonstrations against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I remember a spirited peace march through through San Francisco on a sunny day, with my parents, husband, and two young children. It was one of the few times that I saw my father, an embittered veteran of World War II, suspend his cynicism. And we did eventually get out of Vietnam, whether or not our antiwar protests were crucial.
Demonstrations against the U.S. war in Iraq seemed less spirited, but then we were thirty years older, wiser, and sadder. Today, our weaponry and soldiers are still in Iraq, as well as Syria and Afghanistan—although many of the U.S. tanks and missiles have ended in the hands of the Islamic State and al Quaeda. But there are always more where those came from, given that the Uncle Sam is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, by far.
The important question of justifiable intervention in a foreign war is only too relevant, fiscally and morally, to the current presidential campaigns., “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” by White House correspondent Mark Landler (NYTimes Magazine, April 24) examines at great length the evolution of her belief in military solutions, including her long-term friendships with various army generals. of which David Petraeus is the most photogenic.
Landler scarcely mentions Hillary’s controversial role in Libya, perhaps because the Times had recently covered it in an earlier pair of in-depth articles. The Times, which has endorsed Clinton, seems to have displayed unusual initiative in publishing these pieces, which conclude that American voters may be presented with “an unfamiliar choice, a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.” Donald Trump claims that he was an early opponent of the Iraq war, which he said would destabilize the region. Fact-checkers report that he said no such thing at the time that he said it.
However these distorting, disheartening campaigns develop in the coming six months, unpacking the Panama Papers should result in more transparency about global networks of money and power.Whether the electorate’s responses will be too jaded to make the logical connections, time will tell. But after the election we can always look forward to the movie. For his part, Ramon Fonseca jauntily says that he plans to use the material in a novel.
The Doomsday Clock, a simplistic concept created by a posse of guilt-riddled scientists, now allows just three minutes until midnight and the end of the world as we know it.
The apocalyptic clock first appeared on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, established by men who regretted their role in the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With catastrophic climate change and the current conflict in Ukraine, the Last Midnight looms.
A ray of hope penetrates the gloom, if you close one eye and squint slightly: the Doomsday Clock was designed by Martyl Langdorf, an artist married to one of the remorseful physicists of the Manhattan Project–a sort of conjugal alliance of art and science. Martyl (her professional name) lived to be 96. In her spirited oral history at the Chicago Art Institute, she comments tartly on the ineptness and waste of the so-called intelligence community’s awkward efforts to keep track of her lengthy career as a left-leaning artist. Here empathy served me. Having friends in Eastern Europe and a Berkeley zip code, I found my phone tapped primitively, as in an old Czech movie.
Communism, I hope that I can now safely observe, lacks monitory images of spiritual apocalypse. The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, feature a Last Judgement at the end of the world. In Islam, the road to salvation is rocky unless one dies in a holy war. In Christianity and Judaism, sinners have at least a fighting chance, so to speak, at redemption.
Estimating the numbers slaughtered through the ages in the service of these three great monotheistic faiths is truly daunting. Not to mention the butcheries among their competing subgroups…Catholics versus Protestants, Protestants versus other Protestants, Shi’ia versus Sunni… Historians are inclined to give the most numbers to the Christians, especially if the count includes the Second World War and the Holocaust.
But the Apocalypse does play well. The Catholic Church in its wisdom programs illustrations of The Last Judgement for the exit walls of churches and chapels. In the basilica on the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon is a transfixing twelfth-century mosaic.
In neighboring Padua, Giotto was hired for a large sum to create a magnificent Last Judgement that would better position the Scrovegni family of usurers (bankers) for possible salvation, despite Dante’s condemnation.
A mere two centuries later came Michelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel. A Resurrection scene had first been proposed for this wall, but it seemed to Paul III in 1530 that the times demanded a stronger statement.
In the 1990s a major restoration effort transformed the Sistine Chapel. At one point I was lucky enough to find myself on the scaffolding watching workers uncovering the vivid colors under the grime of centuries of candle smoke. I saw a master restorer swabbing at the wall with one hand, the other holding a smoking cigarette. Alas, no photo is available.
Armageddon also echoes in music. In 1984, as the atomic scientists’ clock was closing in on midnight, Stephen Sondheim was shaping our high anxiety and fear of doomsday into the angry giantess of “Into the Woods.” The musical opened in 1986 in San Diego, not on Broadway. Bernadette Peters’ thrilling announcement of “The Last Midnight” came later.
Is it significant that a scientist also presented the 2015 Doomsday Clock there in San Diego, where the catastrophic California drought is still hovering? I suppose not.
“Into the Woods” has recently, like “Porgy and Bess”, slipped into the opera category. Almost thirty years after its premiere, “Into the Woods” has a lovely revival in Manhattan by a small repertory group, the Fiasco Theater, some Brown MFAs who got together to do what they wanted to do.
A full scale nuclear-powered opera, “Dr. Atomic” premiered in San Francisco, California in 2005, with the collaboration of John Adams and Peter Sellars– and Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller as the troubled scientists.
Probably there is a category for apocalyptic musical works? Faust, Don Giovanni, the Ring, for starters. Surely someone is working on an opera about Edward Snowden, and maybe his proud mother as well. Peter Sellars also has a lovely, proud mother.
In the Qur’an, Allah asks Jesus whether or not he claimed that he and his mother were two gods besides Allah, to which Jesus replies that he would never have said such a thing (5:115-117). Emphasis on the “said”.
In any event, we mustn’t forget the Rapture, still to come, last trumpeted for May of 2011. At some future time, not too distant, at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, believers will be raised from the earth to meet Him in midair.
However, some believe that a select group will remain behind on earth for an extended tribulation period that might be confused—by me at least—with Purgatory. But Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, and Reformed Christians view the Rapture as an all-inclusive final resurrection, when Christ returns–and does not leave us slackers and skeptics behind.
14 November 2019
This year, from the other side of the Grand Canal, the warning siren keens closer– and longer, as if keyed to the 50-year flood tide approaching in the laguna.
Not much is otherwise different: another video of someone swimming in the floodwaters in front of San Marco, photos of boats stranded on embankments, of shopkeepers sweeping bilge off their doorsteps. The new mayor blames climate change, a new appearance at the head of the usual malefactors: the sirocco from Africa, full moon, tectonic subsidence, rampant corruption in the calamitous MOSE project to block high tides. The old mayor, arrested amid the MOSE corruption, was recently absolved, but MOSE is still inoperable.
Five years ago, in Cannaregio, I heard the siren sounding a bit before sunrise. . . a long, piercing alert, followed by a series of slowly articulated, musical ululations. Then the quiet slosh of the first vaporetto docking and departing as usual across the canal. I had been lying awake for a while, having seen the acqua alta warning the day before. Acqua alta, high water, refers to monster tides that cause flooding all around the northern Adriatic, but most famously in Venice. Between autumn and spring, the high tides can combine disastrously with the sirocco and the local “bora” winds and the oscillating waters of the long, narrow rectangle of the Adriatic Sea.
As the foundations of most Venetian buildings have been brining in the depths of the lagoon for centuries, the natives regularly take certain minimal precautionary measures. Passerelle planks are neatly stacked, ready to be laid out across flooded expanses in Piazza San Marco and other low-lying parts of the city. In our neighborhood, Cannaregio, ten metal supports for the passerelle were stolen, for what market it is hard to imagine. Tall rubber boots are ready by the door of our attic apartment, lent by our kind landlords, but they are too small for our big American feet.
The first real autumn rain brought only moderate acqua alta in Venice. But in Tuscany the deluge submerged Massa and Carrara, below those white-veined mountains where ancient Romans, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and rich Americans and Arabs, have found an unending supply of white marble to bedeck their temples and mosques, mansions and museums.
Quarry labor was always hard and poorly paid, fueling rebellions among the workers. By the end of the 19th century, Carrara was called the cradle of anarchism. These days the flooded residents seem to be demanding some responsible governmental action, no small order in 21st century Italy. A dear friend, an art historian who helped salvage Florentine art after the great flood of November 1966, observed sadly that Tuscans have never understood how to deal with water. The Venetians, too, were underwater in 1966; their efforts to curb the tides have a higher profile because Venice is more obviously fragile than stony Florence.
The huge MOSE project (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) is supposed to protect Venice and the lagoon against flooding. Note the acronym’s cunning allusion to the Hebrew patriarch who parted the Red Sea. MOSE consists of 78 mobile underwater barrier gates that rise during high tides to isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Approved by the Comitatone (Big Committee) in 2003 with a budget of some 7 billion euros, MOSE has so far successfully tested only four of the gates.
Meanwhile, in June 2014, the mayor of Venice and 35 other “public servants” were charged with misuse of billions of the MOSE funds. The arrest of the mayor of Venice was international news, and even amid the flamboyant excesses of Italian politics, the level of corruption is spectacular.
The scandal provided local color following the opening of the 2014 Biennale of architecture, which was set partly in the Arsenale, the former Venetian shipyards, first mentioned in 1104. “Arsenale” comes from the Arabic “darsena” or workshop, and there were naval arsenals already in the seventh and eighth centuries along coasts from North Africa to Arab Sicily and the southern Mediterranean. But for some four centuries, the fleets built in the Venetian Arsenale ruled the waves in war and commerce.
Venice hasn’t been actively at war for some three hundred years. The grand buildings of the Arsenale now house a splendid naval museum as well as splashy international expositions like the architecture Biennale, part of which occupies the Corderie, a vast columned hall built in the 16th century, where miles of ropes were made for the ships in production.
The Biennale exhibits were remarkably free of military or imperial connections, except of course for those involving the guilt, implicit or acknowledged, of modern colonial powers. Silvio Berlusconi’s melodramatic apology to Libya for decades of Italian abuse is memorialized next to videos showing footage of the most recent exploitation of Libyan oil.
On the Arsenale embankment is a recumbent classical column that is connected with the Biennale’s Albanian exhibit. A documentary by Albanian exile artist Adrian Paci shows the quarrying of the marble block in China, its loading onto a freighter, and to cut costs, three Chinese carvers working the marble en route on the high seas. Paci thus addresses what we might call the downside of global trade and labor.
During the Second World War, the shipyards in Richmond, California, were the most efficient and productive of any in the country. Huge buildings, on the same scale as the Venetian Arsenale, enclosed the assembly lines which had been pioneered by early Venetian shipbuilders. In Venice the workers, the arsenalotti, were respected and paid well. The Richmond shipyards employed tens of thousands of unskilled laborers fleeing the depressed South. Rosie the Riveter was a familiar icon of the spunky female worker.
The docks and warehouses now house restaurants & theaters and light industry. An Italian restaurant, Salute e Vita, in a Cape Cod Victorian said to have been the Richmond harbormaster’s house, is now owned by a beautiful woman born Ethiopia and raised in Rome in a family of restaurateurs.
Menbe now dispenses Thanksgiving charity to the hoi polloi of the real city of Richmond, many of whose grandparents came from the depressed South to work in the wartime shipyards.
Richmond now has the highest rates of unemployment and violent crime of any city in the Bay Area except Oakland. Property values were so low that developers could profitably produce a town-house development along the waterfront and even offer some public amenities, little beaches and a smart interactive memorial to Rosie the Riveter.
In Venice, every year after 1177, the doge sailed out into the lagoon on a seriously over-decorated ship called the Bucintoro, and tossed a ring into the waves to symbolize Venice’s wedding with the sea. After Napoleon had carried off the Lion and Horses of St. Mark and the choicest artworks in the city, the French set the last Bucintoro afire where all in the city could see it burn, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. And there the canny French sieved the ashes to save the gold.
Some years ago Colonel Giorgio Paterno proposed to recreate the festive Venetian Bucintoro that was destroyed in 1798. Colonel Paterno, the head of Fondazione Bucintoro, said in March 2008: “[We will] build it as fast as we can but we’re not in a hurry. It is intended that the project will make use of traditional shipbuilding techniques and original materials…and will reproduce the gold decorations.”
The foundation wrote to then-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy to ask for a financial contribution as a goodwill gesture in view of the Napoleonic vandalism. Just this year, no thanks to Sarkozy, the French pledged to contribute six hundred oak trees from the forests of Aquitaine surrounding the city of Bordeaux. Meanwhile, alas, as Paterno said, “Invaded by so many million tourists, the city risks losing its identity, losing its cultural connection with its own history.”
There is also the escalating risk that Venice will lose its historical and cultural identity not through tourism but under the invasive tides of the Adriatic. The earliest acqua alta, in 579, was reported two hundred years later by Paul the Deacon, a Benedictine monk-historian. The event, known onomatopoetically as the Rotta della Cucca, was a calamitous rupture of river banks in the Veneto. This collates with variously reported global climate changes in 536-538, confirmed by tree-ring chronology. The probable cause was a volcanic event that created a dust ring around the planet, darkening the sun and aborting harvests. The ensuing famines and civil unrest could explain many gloomy global developments, from the sudden decline of Teotihuacan to the Plague of Justinian, and the westward Mongol invasions. In fact, this catastrophe theory, advanced by journalist David Keys, was so expansively interesting that it was quickly discredited by qualified academics—but not before public television documentaries that you might have missed, as I did.
Catastrophe theories aside, it must be conceded that recent western technology, no matter how advanced in nuclear weaponry, domestic espionage, craft beer, and social networking, has not been able to resolve drought issues in Africa, Brazil, Ukraine, or California.
In October 2010, at the edge of the Assad reservoir in northern Syria, we shared a picnic—lots of mezze & pastries—provided by our genial driver. Abu Hani was a Palestinian refugee, a survivor, having lived alone for several years while teaching math in Saudi Arabian middle schools in order to finance his household in secular Damascus. His wife would not live in Saudi Arabia. We haven’t heard from Abu Hani for almost four years now.
This might be a place to share the information that in Saudi Arabia, our staunch ally in the noble fight against Islamic State barbarism, there were 79 public beheadings in 2013.
The Assad reservoir is near the town of Raqqa, now controlled by the Islamic State, which sometimes prefers to bill itself as the more historically resonant Islamic Caliphate. A recent account of the consumption habits of the Caliphate’s soldiers found western products such as Pringles, Snickers, and Red Bull absorbing much of their $3 daily food allowance. Not mentioned was their appreciation of American brands of machine guns and tanks that they have confiscated from various Syrian rebel groups, “vetted” or not.
Returning to Venice from Florence one day in November, I paged through an international paper. The top story was Obama in China. That night Italian TV showed Obama, lean and elegant in a mandarin jacket, coolly chewing a piece of gum as he strode across a stage to shake hands with President Xi.
Maybe it was later that same night that the Italian Marco Polo (played by the impressive Marco Paolini) appeared onscreen. In any case, all this tended to eclipse an interesting op-ed on the historic drought in Isfahan. The writer suggested that western help in dealing with the drought problem could improve relations with Iran, where, as (almost) everyone knows, Isfahan is located.
Isfahan, visited by Marco Polo in 1330, was a Persian capital known for its beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. But, way of the world, in 1722 it was sacked by Afghan invaders and the capital was moved to Tehran. Today Isfahan still produces carpets and textiles, but also steel. It has a major oil refinery and “experimental” nuclear reactors, as well as the largest shopping-mall-with-a-museum in the world (not to mention a top-notch chamber of commerce). But cosmopolitan twenty-first-century Isfahan is now suffering from an 80-year drought.
When Venice was a major commercial center, expediting goods along the route to Isfahan and other Silk Road depots, the Dogana da Mar, the Customs House of Venice, controlled access to the Grand Canal and the San Marco docks.
In 2007 Japanese architect Tadao Ando began a wonderful renovation of the space for use as a museum. “This building has been floating on the water since the 15th century, and my intention is to see it float into the future; it is a very old building and it was very difficult to study its history so as to preserve its original structure and innovate toward the future.” Since the extant building was actually built in 1677, one doesn’t feel that Ando’s creativity has been much hampered by his study of its history.
Meanwhile, the modest hydrographic station on the Punta della Dogana (the Doge’s Nose) still sends information to the Centro della Marea (Tide Center), which warns the citizens of coming inundations. .
One morning after our return to Berkeley, I looked out the window. The California drought was breaking in a big way and our street had become a flowing canal. There was a flash flood warning online, but a silent one.
Aunt Kate, who will be 100 on November 22, 2017, used to be a gambler. Not regularly, but often enough so the casinos and hotels used to send her special offers and discount coupons. Her older sister, my late mother, disapproved mightily and used it as another excuse not to send Kate much money on her birthday or Christmas. I think the casinos were mostly in nearby Reno, not Las Vegas. Probably they don’t have casinos in Reno like Mandalay Bay, although lots of people there do pack guns.
One day, clearing an upstairs closet, I decided to cart off the lapsed laptops and tangles of old phones and chargers to a recycling yard. This led naturally enough to reconsidering the problem of Aunt Kate’s pistol, which I had stowed deep in that same closet.
Sometimes I forgot that the gun was still there, in its padded camouflage-print case, tucked inside a white bag decorated with a flag and the logo “Proud to be an American,” the whole stuffed inside a larger blue bag advertising a Berkeley oral surgery clinic. When I did remember, I just couldn’t decide how best to get rid of it.
Aunt Kate had been living alone in the Sierras for twenty years when I had to help her move to a nursing home. By then she knew most of the neighbors on her road; summer people with boats and gas barbecues, and many year-round, like her, sometimes sharing snowplows, woodpiles, and apple harvests.
That sounds pleasantly communal, but in my experience mountain people are more often than not a bit off-kilter. Kate’s nearest neighbor, who had bought land from her original parcel, also had a share in her well and the spring, and he did not like the feckless way she watered the plants on her property, or the spewing fountain she had installed amid her daffodils. He put up a no-trespassing sign that she could see from her kitchen window, and a barbed wire fence with fiercely yapping dogs behind it. What this had to do with drought or riparian rights was unclear, but it definitely wasn’t friendly. A paunchy guy in a baseball cap, he liked to patrol his property line in a sort of souped-up golf cart. Kate did threaten to take action if he should ever emerge from behind the fence. I don’t think that she would have shot him, but she did have a hot temper, and she owned that gun.
Kate’s revolver, called the Rough Rider, was produced by the Heritage Manufacturing Company, whose mellow catalog notes point out that “Old World gun maker Pietta of Italy starts certain parts for us.” Furthermore, “The very image conjured up is of the rugged men led by Theodore Roosevelt and is almost the spitting image of the Single Action Army [revolver] still being carried by some troops during the Spanish-American War.”
About that time, I happened to watch Ken Burns’ Roosevelt epic. FDR and Eleanor were major icons in my family, but not so Teddy and his strenuous ways and words. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the greatest sport in the world,” he said. The Spanish-American War of 1898, that “splendid little war,” only lasted ten weeks, but some have seen it as the end of the Spanish Empire and the beginning of the so-called American century. In any case, the image of Roosevelt charging up and down San Juan Hill on horseback (amid the foot soldiers) eventually got him to the White House.
Another such image comes to mind, of George W. Bush, in 2003, fully kitted out in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier flying the banner “Mission Accomplished,” and declaring the Iraq war over, a bit prematurely.
Barack Obama had too much dignity and good sense to have provided similar photo opportunities regarding the expanding U.S. military engagement in Syria and Iraq. (In fact it, in 2014 it didn’t even have a name yet, noted the Wall Street Journal. Does it now? The War Against Islamic State?)
Still, another kind of visual embarrassment attached to the bombing of a hitherto unknown terrorist menace in northwestern Syria. The defense department announced the assault, providing a colorful but vague map that was astutely deconstructed by Daniel Brownstein.
Looking at that map, you would never know that the cluster of eight bombings probably devastated the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, coincidentally eight in number, UNESCO sites with well-preserved remains of Byzantine and Christian settlements from the first to the seventh centuries.
Built of stone instead of wood, the remnants of these villages make the tarted-up ghost towns of the American Wild West seem fairly pathetic. The Sierras are full of Gold Rush ghost towns, and my aunt Kate used to like to visit the one nearest her, of which little was left but an old hotel with a mahogany bar and a big mirror adorned with antlers and a couple of fancy old rifles.
One summer night, warm for the Bay Area, a visiting friend was asleep in the upstairs room with the crowded closet described earlier—but long before I deposited Aunt Kate’s revolver there.
Sometime after midnight I heard a crash of shattering glass, and guessed that it was the neighbors recycling after a party. A bit later I heard some loud talk in the guest room, and then a peremptory knocking on our bedroom door. A very slender, very dark young man entered and said, improbably, “This is a stick-up!”
There was enough light to see him gesturing with what looked like the barrel of a gun in the pocket of his windbreaker. “Get up,” he said. He marched the three of us downstairs and out the front door. “Get moving,” he said, “and don’t look back.” We walked slowly down the block, turned the corner without hearing a shot, and went immediately to wake a neighbor to call the police. (The first neighbor could not be roused, but that’s another story.)
The police arrived and cordoned off our block with yellow tape and a row of squad cars. We were deposited at the police station, where we sat barefoot in our nightclothes, waiting to be told what was going on. The intruder had decided to dig in. He threw various items out the upstairs window onto the street—bags holding kitchen knives and fridge photos—and announced his demands to the police below: to be given possession of our house and the Toyota in the driveway, and to be admitted to the University of California.
This was 1992, shortly after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and the Berkeley police were being very, very careful. Eventually, towards dawn, the intruder opened our front door, walked to the driveway with the car keys in his hand, and was immediately arrested and subdued. Later it emerged that he had taken a bath, donned some of our clothes, and believed that he was therefore invisible.
He was unarmed, had only been faking a gun barrel with an empty prescription medicine vial. His father flew out from Baltimore, where the son had gone off his medication, to take him home. We were grateful that nobody had been hurt and the house was more or less intact.
That was a long time ago. I managed finally to turn in Aunt Kate’s pistol at the Berkeley police station near City Hall. The young officer asked if I was willing to have the pistol used in police cadet target-shooting classes. I guessed that hey would have bought another if I had said no.
Aunt Kate’s revolver was probably manufactured sometime between 1986 and 2010, a period when U.S. small-arms production included over 98 million pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns—for domestic sale alone. Would this total include firearms promised and/or delivered by the U.S. to the “moderate” Syrian rebels, “vetted,” of course? Or perhaps they would have been incorporated in export figures. Possibly, arms shipments “secretly” authorized by Congress would not figure at all in production totals? What about drones? So many questions.
Some say that if the U.S. had armed the rebels in Deir ez-Zor, the town would not have fallen to ISIS. Some say that ISIS is using U.S. weaponry it has taken from rebels it has “pacified.” Whichever account is correct, the results are essentially the same.
We all know that statistics are fungible according to their source. But information from every source imaginable shows that the U.S. is far and away the largest producer of arms in the world. Domestically we have about nine guns for every ten citizens, a total of about 270 million. How many wars worldwide are being waged with U.S. weaponry (if not with U.S. boots on the ground)?
That folksy expression “boots on the ground” dates from General William Westmoreland and the United States’ misadventures in Vietnam, so painfully documented by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
On the other hand, military research has, rather famously, given the civilian world the Internet, and GPS. Current DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) projects include the mother of all recycling programs, re-use of retired satellite parts into new “on-orbit assets.” DARPA has in the past been known as ARPA, omitting the “Defense” for political expediency. One year its name was changed and changed back three times.
DARPA, through its MANTRA program (Materials with Novel Transport Properties) is also working on a portable desalinator that will allow troops in the field to transform salt water into fresh water.
A very small percenage of our planet’s water supply is drinkable freshwater, which can pose problems for a military which must deploy to the far corners of the earth when the president and/or Congress say so. These areas are often hot, sandy, and subject to drought. However, lack of fresh water in those far corners is in the long run more problematic for the local peoples than for U.S. troops, who eventually get to go home.
Might there be an algorithm connecting occasions for foreign military intervention with places where drought and poverty are endemic? Could DARPA (through MANTRA) produce larger, if somewhat more cumbersome desalinators, to make such sweeping improvements in a country’s standard of living that our troops—or any others—might not even be needed?
One of the earlier cases of military research directed to civilian uses must be Galileo’s early promotion of his telescope as a useful instrument for the notably martial Venetian Republic. The Venetian arsenal and naval museum testify further along these lines, and the richly detailed globes at the Correr Museum were very much imperial instruments as well. From the looks of their Syrian maps, the U.S. Defense Department couldn’t produce anything similar.
December 14, 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza on a rampage through the school killed twenty children and six adults. Before heading for the school Adam Lanza killed his mother, a gun collector, in her bed.
For 15 -24 year olds, the ﬁrearm homicide rate in the United States more than 40 times higher than in other developed countries. How much is this due to the increased availability of guns across our fruited plains?
The US has the highest gun ownership rate in the world – an average of 88 per 100 people. Yemen, at Number Two, has 54.8 per 100 people. Arms possession doesn’t seem to have improved the national welfare in Yemen either.
The nation watched the funeral for the Newtown dead and grieved, as it will watch the funerals after the Las Vegas slaughter. After Newtown, President Obama wept and vowed reform. But within a few months, the Assault Weapons Ban bill and the amendment to expand background checks on gun purchases were both defeated in the Senate. It seems highly unlikely that the killings will cause President Trump to promise any gun reform, but he’s very sad about this manifestation of “pure evil” at Mandalay Bay, a casino with which he has no connection.
The Andrew Cuomo administration passed a strong gun control act a month after the Newtown tragedy. But soon thereafter, 52 of New York’s 62 counties passed official resolutions in direct opposition to control of assault weapons. Not only did the gun lobby defeat any gun law reforms, but they helped recall two Colorado lawmakers trying to firm up that state’s gun regulations. New laws now let people bring guns into bars, churches, and college campuses. Schools around the country have hired armed guards. There’s more security apparatus in public places, not just in airports but in shopping malls and football stadiums.
California’s senior senator Dianne Feinstein gave her all to get the Assault Weapons Ban passed in April 2014. When it failed, she said that it now fell to the states to take up the issue of gun reform. That month, another unbalanced youth killed six students and himself in Santa Barbara, California. This resulted in a successful campaign to strengthen California’s gun control laws, which have already been described as the strongest in the nation.
Aunt Kate’s Heritage little revolver probably came with a complementary one-year membership in the N.R.A. It’s a curious fact that the National Rifle Association was not founded to fight for so- called constitutional rights to own and use guns. The NRA was founded in 1871 by two Yankee Civil War veterans, including an ex-New York Times reporter, who felt that war dragged on because urban northerners could not shoot as well as rural southerners. Its original purview was “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation,” the motto displayed in its national headquarters.
The NRA actually went on to help to write many of the federal laws restricting gun use in the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA’s leaders helped write and lobby for the first federal gun control laws—the very kinds of laws that the modern NRA now opposes.
Only after a leadership coup in 1977 did the NRA become a powerful political force operating on the premise that more guns are the answer to society’s worst violence. The NRA advocated arming commercial airline pilots after 9/11 and teachers after Sandy Hook, while opposing new restrictions on gun usage.
Why am I fixated on Aunt Kate’s little pistol? (22LR & 22Magnum cartridges, genuine cocobolo grip). My own spouse still has, salted away somewhere, a few of the antique rifles that he collected as a boy. Of all the guns in the world, Aunt Kate’s is the only one I have been able to take out of circulation.
(For more on the history of gun control, see Adam Winkler, Gunfight: the Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.)