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After three years in Florence, we returned to California shortly before the flood of November 1966. We watched our heroic friends in the news, cleaning oily mud from priceless paintings and manuscripts.
We flew out of Damascus just months before Syria first began to implode in March 2011 and cannot forget the backdrop for the human and historical disasters of the past seven years.
This spring we happened to spend some time in Genoa, not entirely by choice, but that’s another story. In fact, we had always wanted to explore this live, functioning port on the other side of the Italian boot from Venice, our alternate reality. Arriving and departing from Genoa Brignole by train, we never had reason to cross or even to view the deadly Morandi Bridge.
The tragedy of the bridge’s failure, the death and destruction, was immediately blamed on every political or institutional body extant in the past fifty years. The left chalked it up to the corrupt privatization of the Italian infrastructure. Before long the lion’s share of the blame settled on defective maintenance by Autostrade per L’Italia, a division of Atlantia SpA. Atlantia’s owners are the Benettons, whose dossier also includes the 2013 collapse of a Bangladeshi clothing factory that killed 1,134 workers. You may remember the Benettons from a cloying ad campaign touting the putative diversity of the “United Colors of Benetton”. (A rags-to-riches family from Treviso, they might have done better to invest in local prosecco vineyards.)
Autostrade per l’Italia’s license to manage the Italian freeway network may (or may not) be revoked. Atlantia has offered 500 million euros toward helping the victims as well as a quick reconstruction of the bridge. The Italian government is (or may be) debating nationalization of the whole highway infrastructure, which may (or may not) result in less corruption and safer roads and bridges.
“Genoa is fragile, but nobody cares,” said native son Renzo Piano in an interview discussing the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, in a rainstorm. “I do not know what happened, but I can say that I do not believe in the fatalism that considers nature, lightning and rain uncontrollable. Nobody can come and tell us that it was an accident.”
We stayed in the eastern part of Genoa, where the old city slopes down the hill to the port. The quarter is still called the Maddalena, after the winding street where women have been marketing themselves all day and all night for several centuries. Recent municipal efforts to restore the ancient neighborhood have apparently not affected the puttane.
As early as the 1300s, the Maddalena was the financial center of the city. Now the narrow streets near the harbor are home to various mild-mannered immigrant communities. We were often lost in the web of alleys, threading our way past dark-skinned people clustering at markets and sitting in rows in doorways, all much more interested in their own pursuits than in us. There seemed to be no mendicants, perhaps because of a large police and military presence, also mild-mannered, not to mention a 75-euro fine for begging. Last year a conservative anti-immigrant city administration was elected.
(Note: Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded the populist Five-Star Movement, is from Genoa.) The new Italian government is headed by an uneasy coalition of the Five Stars and the neo-fascist League.
Five hundred years ago, there was no Italian state to be consumed by conflicting interests or rampant xenophobia. In the vicious battles among the merchant republics of the Renaissance, Genoa’s mercenary soldiers and ships for hire brought enormous wealth to their city. Genoa had at that time the greatest concentration of successful bankers on this planet. Their families built the outsize columned and marbled palaces along the Strada Nuova, the new street. They paid Rubens, Van Dyck and Caravaggio to paint portraits and decorate walls, and local artists imitated them quite successfully.
Of their famous shipyard (in no way a rival to the Venetian Arsenale) they have made an excellent naval museum, with myriad mythological and literary allusions to the sea, interactive historical maps, and the reconstruction of a full-size galley. In the entry is Renzo Piano’s blueprint for a new waterfront. Meanwhile, he left a large glass sphere and the Bigo panoramic lift, modeled on the old derricks for loading and unloading merchandise in the port.
Since the early 20th century, funiculars have run up and down the steep slopes of the city. Whether or not their cost is justified by commuting residents, tourists are happy to find pleasant restaurants at the top. However, panoramic views of the city have been cut in half by the construction of cheap public housing and a huge belt of highway above the waterfront. This is not unlike the situation in San Francisco, before they decided to demolish their Embarcadero freeway–rather than rebuild it after the Loma Prieta quake.
Of course blue jeans originated in Genoa, not San Francisco. Denim was a twill fabric of Nîmes (de Nîmes) manufacture that was used for sailors’ trousers in Genoa (Gênes in French). Levi Strauss only added the rivets.
In the Gold Rush years and after, San Francisco and the north-central coast were settled by Italian immigrants, the first wave largely Genoese fishermen and farmers.
My mother grew up in the fishing town of Santa Cruz, California and went to school with the Stagnaro boys whose fathers came from Riva Trigosa near Genoa. When my father went overseas during World War II, she returned to her home town with her small children. Another young “war widow “with a child lived across the street, and her Italian in-laws often invited us all to Sunday lunch at their farm in Soquel. Mrs. Conrado made delicious ravioli and memorable marinated artichoke hearts–although my mother had trouble downing the roasted uccelletti.
Many of the Italians who came to San Francisco left the city for the suburbs as soon as they could. Among those who stayed, some entered politics, others ran popular restaurants, and still others did both. But Little Italy in North Beach has been nearly absorbed by the growth of Chinatown, which now counts for more than 20 percent of the San Francisco population.
In 2014 Genoa’s immigrant population was 55,000 of almost 600,000. 18,000 came from Ecuador, the rest from Albania, Bangladesh, China, India, Morocco, Peru, Roumania, Russia, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine. Most recent immigrants come from North African and sub-Saharan countries.
Given that the Genoese have the lowest birth rate in Italy and the oldest population in all Europe, the fast-growing immigrant presence will play an increasingly important role in the city’s future, for better or for worse, depending on one’s political views.
Immigrants, anyway, cannot be blamed for the failure of the Morandi Bridge.
What’s the old Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times!
Last month I was in Italy, where summer had steamed in early and politics had moved into operatic extremes of drama and imbroglio only slightly leavened by farce. Finally running the new coalition government are the boy wonder of the Five Stars populist movement, founded by a comedian, and the head of the proto-fascist League, who is no longer a joke. The two chose as the new premier an amiable law professor with a CV padded by drive-through sojourns at prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S.
While peculiar politics also reign in my own land, in Italy we tend to see their aberrations as a familiar comedy rather than a dark threat to the survival of the planet. Hard to remember that our Yankee republic was founded almost a hundred years before the bickering regions of the Italian boot could be laced together.
At least Italy’s revolution was accompanied, if not actually orchestrated, by music—with Giuseppe Verdi as its figurehead. Verdi’s poignant chorus from Nabucco, “Va Pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” sung by homesick Hebrew slaves, has come to symbolize the patriotic fervor that led finally to Italian unification.
Waiting for Verdi is the title of a long-awaited new book by Mary Ann Smart, a music historian who writes brilliantly about opera and society. The title clearly contains an ironic reference to Samuel Beckett’s play, but also to the high anxiety shared by struggling Risorgimento patriots, artists and revolutionaries as they struggled toward Unification.
Often as Verdi’s work is linked to Italian revolution, A Masked Ball is set instead in colonial Boston, replete with an a doomed romance, an assassination, and a dusky-skinned fortune teller. Not very diligent research has revealed that the original libretto required Ulrica, the fortune teller, to be played by a “negro.”
Thus the Metropolitan Opera debut of the sublime contralto Marian Anderson, in 1955 the first African-American to sing there.
Nabucco was also playing at the Vienna State Opera when I was a student living with the family of an impoverished baron just a block from the opera house. But the concert and opera posters reminded me of periodic tables, and knowing next to nothing about opera, I went to the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, but never to Nabucco. Little did I know that it was a thrilling tale of King Nebuchednezzar, proprietor of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and featured madness, passion, betrayal, and wanton destruction of selected temples and gods.
In 2015, the Greco-Roman Temple of Bel at Palmyra, 32 CE, was destroyed by ISIS vandals soon after they had beheaded Khaled al Asaad, Palmyra’s much respected chief of antiquities. The Temple of Bel, according to another archaeologist, Khaled’s friend, had actually been a kind of a monument to religious coexistence. The main altar of the temple had been used for sacrifices to different gods, sometimes even side by side. The archaeologist also pointed out that ISIS had announced the destruction of Palmyra well in advance of the fact, but the international community had done nothing.
In any case, peaceful coexistence in Syrian lands is hardly even a memory. Now the best expectations are that some 75,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Daraa—where the so-called civil war began—can be sheltered in Jordan. Four million other Syrians are still homeless.
Meanwhile, the tragic histories of the ancient Middle East have fueled many operas besides Nabucco. How many works of art and music will commemorate the refugee flights of this century, and to what end?
For some years it has been proposed, and rejected, that Italy’s national anthem be replaced by “Va Pensiero,” the haunting Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco. Only recently it has been adopted by the far-right League, as its official hymn. Matteo Salvini and his League are committed to labeling and expelling all immigrants, including thousands of Roma who are legal citizens. Here, whatever Verdi’s politics were, we could use the intervention of the Anvil Chorus.
THE GOOD NEWS!!
Where to begin? Simply typing that unlikely heading suddenly turned my screen deeply black—tracked with tiny white letters like tearstains.
Anna, a Google emergency chatter, rescued me. I decided to persevere. Anna had promised to stand by in case the Dark Side returned.
Though the Comey imbroglio doesn’t qualify as Good News yet, it may prove the beginning of the end of 45’s reign.
For Genuine Good News, vetted by the UNHCR, Al Jazeera, BBC, and Wim Wenders, please consider the following:
RIACE: ITALIAN VILLAGE ABANDONED BY LOCALS, ADOPTED BY MIGRANTS
This southern Italian village saw its population plummet from 2,500 to 400 by 1998. It’s a familiar pattern, locals moving north in hopes of better jobs.
Riace mayor Domenico Lucano saw the international flood of refugees into Italy as an opportunity rather than a blight. When a boatload of Kurdish refugees landed on Riace’s beach, Lucano proposed that they remain in the village and occupy some of the hundreds of empty houses and apartments— while making themselves useful around town, in construction and gardening, learning Italian, and sending their children to school.
This they did, and before long Riace was becoming the model for other depopulated towns. Each asylum seeker receives ca. $39 a day from Rome to cover housing, food, clothing, and medical care. Much of this funding is recycled right into rentals and local shops—which have revived thanks to renewed needs..
Obviously the welcoming policy is more economically and socially sound than financing massive refugee camps outside the big cities. Riace is now inhabited by people from 20 countries.
The mayor of a nearby town, Gioiosa Ionica, notes that aside from the economic benefits, the presence of refugees also brings a certain cosmopolitanism to local children, who learn that people of another color or religion may play cricket, not football. But they can all play foosball.
In Germany a couple of enterprising mayors have also welcomed migrants into their dying towns, with mixed success. On the whole, European countries are notoriously unwilling to absorb more than a tiny number of refugees.
The question of admitting and resettling refugees has brought down governments across the world. Domenico Lucano of Riace certainly deserved his prize in the Mayors of the World competition, but the big picture is still dark.
The first group of migrants to accept Lucano’s invitation to settle in Riace happened to be those two (or three) hundred Kurds. The Kurds do have a distinctive history, relatively unknown in the West these days—though they are increasingly viewed as the most effective military force against ISIS in the Levant.
En route to China, Marco Polo met Kurds in Mosul, and had little good (or reliable) to say of them. The high point of Kurdish history seems to have been the reign of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the twelfth century.
Saladin was a swashbuckling Sunni of Kurdish origin, lord of several Crusader castles.
Krac de Chevaliers, which I saw just before the outbreak of the civil war, has been many times threatened, destroyed and restored. Saladin was defeated by Richard I of England (the Lionhearted) in the battle of Arsuf in Palestine. Arsuf had been Appollonia in the Classical Age; such are the layerings common in the Levant.)
The Janpulat clan were Kurdish feudal lords in the north for almost a century before the Ottoman conquest of Syria. One was appointed governor of Aleppo in 1604, but that ended badly, as so many campaigns have in that ancient city.
A thousand years after Saladin, the United States believes that the Kurds of Syria are the most powerful indigenous force against ISIS. Certainly the Kurds would like to reunite their fragmented holdings in northern Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.
For many years Turkey has feared establishment of a Kurdish state and would like to insert the Turkish army into the battle for the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
“Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s [IS] grave,” Erdogan said recently. He could have added, “Without the Kurds!”
Raqqa is not so interesting, said our guide, driving us quickly into and out of the nondescript town in October 2010, shortly before Syria began to implode. In fact Raqqa was once a major capital, competing with Baghdad along the Euphrates River, until its definitive destruction by the Mongols in the 12th century.
Erdogan and Trump will meet in Washington on May 16. It will be the first meeting between the two authoritarian heads of two NATO countries.
Trump said early on that he planned to stay out of Syria, but then changed his mind. Mysteriously, the badly targeted bombs raised his approval ratings both at home and abroad.
Now what? Trump holding hands with Putin over the smoking remains of Syria. Though the present nation of Syria was of course only a convenient figment of western imperialism. The Kurds have at least as much historical claim to a homeland as today’s Syrians.
Those Kurdish refugees who chose to settle in the little town of Riace are not only out of the line of fire, they are in a grand tradition. In the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, the coasts of the Italian boot and the island of Sicily hosted—willingly or not—such large numbers of Greek immigrants that the area became known as Magna Graecia.
The reasons for the ancient exodus have never been clear: war, famine, expulsion, plague, simple overcrowding or a whim of the oracle at Delphi.
In 1972 a scuba diver discovered two bronze statues buried in the sand not far from the Riace beach.
They turned out to be splendid life-size warriors from the 5th century BCE. Probably they were part of an ancient coastal settlement now underwater on this “subsiding coast.”
But that’s another story, and definitely not Good News.
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?
The elegiac tone of the 2016 Pulitzer centennial celebration, in a slightly musty but historic Los Angeles theater, suited the program’s somber themes—“War, Migration, and the Quest for Peace.”
The unprogrammed elephant in the room was the general consensus that newspapers are in serious trouble. The Los Angeles Times, hosting the occasion with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is healthier than many metropolitan dailies–but struggling. Its parent, Tribune Publishers, has just received a $70.5 billion infusion from the ambitious entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, whose other quixotic investment is a cancer cure.
Many states now lack any newspaper reportage from their capitals, much less in D.C. or foreign countries.. Given the digital revolution’s decimation of local newspapers and/or their staffs, coverage of city halls and state assemblies has almost disappeared. Without journalistic surveillance—familiarly known as muckraking—government corruption flourishes, as it does in any banana republic.
War correspondents’ stories were reliably transfixing. Terry Anderson, with seven years as a hostage in Lebanon; Shirley Christian, who reported on the conflicts in Central America, discovering that nine of her ten sources in El Salvador had been killed. Journalist-director Sebastian Junger (Restrepo) said that war movies were based almost entirely on other war movies, making Hollywood a major source of military history.
Sadly, there wasn’t much on the “quest for peace”. The most memorable was certainly the photographer Nick Ut, whose 1972 photo of the “Napalm girl” was instrumental in ending the American war in Vietnam.
Everywhere, photography showed up as the most powerful tool in journalism, documenting the horrors of war, the desperation of migration, whether from Mexico or Syria.
The other elephant in the room was of course Donald Trump. Press coverage of his campaign was cited, with curious specificity, as one of the two most shameful episodes in the history of American journalism.( I don’t recall whether the second was inadequate reporting on U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Vietnam. Any would serve.)
Washington Post reporter Dana Priest explained drily that the excessive, uncritical coverage of Trump is because he is “clickbait”. Many people, my spouse included, want to know, with their morning coffee, what outrageous position Trump has just taken. In case you’ve been in a remote village on the upper Amazon for the last ten years-the total number of clicks on links to news stories on your computer or phone screen determines investors’ decisions to pay for advertising on the news site.
Someone observed that an important function of the Pulitzer awards is to reassure publishers that it is worthwhile to keep losing money for another year.
Oddly, nobody talked about Joseph Pulitzer, the very singular Hungarian immigrant who amassed the fortune that endowed the Pulitzer prizes in journalism and the arts. Ordinarily, donors and founders, dead or alive, are respectfully, on occasion even affectionately, noted. The low spot of Pulitzer’s career, his resort to yellow journalism in a circulation contest with William Randolph Hearst, was an early recognition of the “clickbait” principle in print media.
Stanford historian David Kennedy(Pulitzer 2000) decided to end the program with a boyhood memory. His favorite uncle had taken him on a fishing trip with a bunch of his oldest and closest friends, great pillars of the (New Haven) community. Afterwards, driving home, his uncle said, “’You know, all of us were together in France during the war. You wouldn’t believe what they did.’ He meant atrocities. He meant that I couldn’t imagine what normal human beings were capable of in a war…”
This is not to suggest that the Pulitzer celebration was unrelievedly grim. The box lunch, especially the roast vegetable option, was cheering. But it was a pity that the “Quest for Peace” had short shrift in the proceedings, as elsewhere in the real world.
Sad to remember that Barack Obama in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after his eloquent anti-nuclear speech in Prague. Obama visiting Hiroshima in 2016 was eloquent again and still. But his administration has cut spending on programs to stop nuclear proliferation, and caved on Pentagon demands for funding of “modernization” of U.S. nuclear weapons. It’s not entirely clear which of Obama’s potential successors is less likely to lead us into more wars.
Pulitzer and Hearst made fortunes off coverage of the Spanish-American War, but the battles were fought with simpler weapons, and more soldiers died of disease than in combat.
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” —Albert Einstein
Last week’s well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement. Russia had only a minor role in that hasty, furtive divvying up of Syria and the Middle East to please French and English interests. As we have seen, the new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model.
In other news, “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic, as a further clarification of its national status. Elaborate historical justifications for adding “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.
Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—but in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, by a committee of Czech and Slovak activists led by philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Having drafted the agreement, later in the year Masaryk became the new country’s first president. He was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of the Burmese Aung San Sui Kyi. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.
The Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I. Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities.Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.
After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, suddenly I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers. I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student.
McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech. Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.
Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we ventured with my mother into communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings. Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.
Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach. Our German was useful.
At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery. My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother a cocky, annoying fellow, who traveled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead. On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.
In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.) Outside Rohy, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barnlike building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place. My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family. That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home.
After the Berlin Wall fell, I followed closely, along with many others, the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was lucky enough to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.
In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia. Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. Do I repeat myself?–the Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination. Also, at that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation. In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen. Empires seem to hang on somewhat longer, maybe by definition. An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.
In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers. Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. Although some say that we are entering the post-oil era, it isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now. When Donald Trump wants to Make America Great Again, what does he mean? Not, surely, a state walled against immigrants, who now animate Silicon Valley, colleges, finance, and the arts, or are farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, who came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life.
In a couple of years it will be the centennial of the Pittsburgh Agreement that established the new state of Czechoslovakia.
This occasion may not be much marked.
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.