A Visit to Noah’s Ark

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The tourist season is almost over, but I’m making plans. I’m also thinking about last year’s acts of tourism. I’m remembering the sunny day in September when I visited Noah’s Ark.

The Ark is the central feature of a sort-of-theme-park called Ark Encounter, in Grant County, Kentucky. It’s a wooden structure — possibly the largest wooden structure on earth — built to the dimensions prescribed in the sixth chapter of Genesis. There aren’t any live animals inside (at least I can’t remember any); they’re in the zoo next door. But there are full-scale models of animals in various kinds of enclosures. There are also models of Noah and his family, going about their lives on the Ark: caring for the animals, fixing meals for themselves, relaxing in their comfortable onboard cabins. Ramps lead from level to level, where one finds “scientific” exhibits, restrooms, and two theaters with continuous showings of movies. In the first theater, Noah is interviewed by a skeptical antediluvian reporter and explains how and why you would build an ark. In the second theater, a 21st-century ark advocate is interviewed by a reporter who is (I think) played by the same actress who played the ancient one. She also is skeptical and needs to be converted to the idea that the biblical account is literally true. I assume the conversion happens, although I left before the movie was over. Her snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

But “credulity” isn’t exactly the right word. For me, a charming aspect of the place was the scores of exhibits providing ingenious answers both to obvious questions and to questions that, I’m embarrassed to say, had never occurred to me.

  • How did all those animals fit into the Ark? Well, they didn’t represent species; they represented “kinds,” which are fewer and are capable of developing (not evolving) into more than one species.
  • How did all those really big animals fit inside? Well, Noah probably took the young, small ones. I hadn’t thought of that.
  • How could you carry food to all those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could you remove all the dung from those animals? You could use lots of pulleys and dumbwaiters.
  • How could a family of eight take care of thousands of animals? It’s not too hard, when you figure how much work a normal man or woman can do in X number of hours . . . .

The continuous display of cleverness delighted me. It went a long way toward illustrating Chesterton’s observation that the last thing a crazy person has left is his logic. But the builders of the Ark aren’t crazy; their ideas are just naïve and innocuous, and the Ark lets you see how far naiveté and innocuousness can get you in America, and how much charm you can gather along the way.

The reporter's snarky postmodern attitude was less congenial to me than the religious credulity of the rest of the Ark.

The Arkists optimistically predicted that they would be visited by 2.4 million people during their first full season, which was 2017. When I visited, they’d gotten only about 1.5 million, maybe, and it was late in the season. I was concerned that their great enterprise might have a short life, despite a (to me) very regrettable but somewhat shaky subsidy from a neighboring town. But there’s a wall inside the Ark that shows the names of people who have contributed various amounts for its construction, and it’s a very long wall. The Ark came to rest within easy driving distance of Louisville, Lexington, Dayton, and Cincinnati, and that’s a church belt. Visitors to the Ark whom I saw were very “diverse” — whites, blacks, Asians, beards, bikers, families of nine. The only solo visitor was me. So the audience is large, and just when I was thinking that a lot more people could be packed into the Ark, I went to the restaurant outside, and there were hundreds more of them in there. More than in the Ark itself. They may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

I hope they eat their way to heaven. Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can. And this is an American thing; you can’t imagine it happening in France. Maybe I’ll visit again this year.

The visitors may not be museumgoers, but they are sure as hell good eaters.

My pilgrimage to the Ark last year began with a visit to my ancestral homeland, a county in Southern Illinois where my family has lived since 1816. I myself have never lived there; my parents left before I was born. But I’m related to all the old families, and I like to see what’s going on. In the early 1890s my father’s father built a house on the main street of one of the county’s little towns. That house passed out of the family a few years ago, after the death of my beloved aunt, the last of my grandparents’ eight children. Next to her house are (going south on Main Street) two other big old houses and then the Methodist church, where my grandparents taught Sunday school. The church seems to be doing all right, despite its fluctuating congregation, but much of the rest of Main Street has been torn down, hideously altered, or left derelict. The town’s population has been declining since 1910, and the working population has been declining still more disastrously. The old families, who were poor, by the world’s standards (my grandparents never owned a car), are being replaced by people on welfare, many of whom have no standards. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. If you want to see used up sofas stashed in the yard, I can show you where to go.

Whenever I visit, I brace ourselves for some more sad social and architectural news, especially about those two houses next to my grandparents’ place. They’ve been empty for years, and before that they were subjected to destructive attempts to “modernize.” If you’re brave enough to step onto the sagging wooden porches and look in the windows, what you see is broken glass, naked lath, once-friendly rooms returning to a state of unfriendly nature.

Their idea of Christianity isn’t mine, but their spirit of voluntarism enchants me. You want to build a giant ark? You want to make it pay? I’m with you — see if you can.

But this time, I saw a truck out back, and a man walking toward me: “Can I help you?” I explained myself, we shook hands, and I learned that this man was there to help the houses. A 50ish gentleman from an even smaller town about ten miles up the road, he had purchased both properties from the bank (or some other entity on which possession had devolved), because he liked them and wanted to restore them. More important, he had the skills to restore them. He had learned those skills decades ago, when the local high school actually taught students how to do things. It offered courses — excellent courses — in all the construction trades. Every year, students built a house from scratch, and sold it. If anybody can do something for old family homes, a graduate of those courses can do it.

I don’t know whether this man will succeed. I don’t know whether the Ark Encounter will succeed. Both seem romantic and quixotic to me. Nothing could be more different from America’s Towers of Tech or its Mordor of urban “housing” than these vernacular architectural enterprises. They are the creations of individuals, not of the state or the lackeys of the state.

I live in coastal California, and I’m often surprised to discover that no one here ever goes to the Midwest, the real Midwest, or any portion of California that isn’t built of concrete and steel. I know I could say something similar about the travel habits of people from New York or Boston or Washington, or even Chicago. But the Midwest I’m thinking about has nothing to do with physical geography. It has to do with the geography of the mind. There are places in the mind where everything that is done has to be done by some enormous, statelike thing. And there are places in the mind where individual people still do things, because they want to. Those places I call America.




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Run for the (Sea)Wall

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Every Memorial Day for the past 30 years a now-grizzled convoy of Viet Nam vets astride choppers swarms the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Groups of two, ten, twenty and more, hailing from every corner of the continent, converge at minor and major crossroads into a host of hundreds of thousands. This grassroots commemoration is known as the Run for the Wall. It was started in 1989 by two vets on Harleys. By last count the run numbers 350,000.

At the nation’s capital, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; enlistees and draftees; non-coms and warriors; enlisted men and officers, relatives and sympathizers; WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, yes, Bay of Pigs vets (everyone is welcome) — all long in the tooth, mostly hirsute, amply girthed and outfitted in Harley Davidson garb — cry like spurned orphans as their fingers graze the black granite of remembrance searching for the names of long lost comrades. The tears are contagious. Onlookers mist up or avert their gaze in respect and abide the circumstance.

The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

This past Christmas Eve, an entirely different group of vets commemorated its 55th anniversary of freedom. On Christmas Eve, 1962, the last of the 1,113 Bay of Pigs POWs of Brigade 2506 were released after nearly two years of incarceration in Fidel Castro’s prisons. My cousins Carlos “Cachorro” León Acosta and Armando “Armandito” Lastra Faget, both 19, were the first to taste liberty that day. For Carlos, that was the night he was born again.

The Brigade had signed up to liberate Cuba from Castro’s communist fist. For a variety of reasons, and in spite of inflicting nearly 5,000 casualties on the Castro troops and suffering only 67 combat deaths, the Brigade was unable to achieve its goal.

Contrary to the narrative Fidel Castro has popularized — that the Bay of Pigs operation was a US CIA invasion manned by mercenaries — the true nature of that debacle has seldom been put into words. This is mainly because the freed prisoners were sworn to press silence, to avoid offending either the Castro or the Kennedy government and imperiling nascent and fragile agreements between the two countries. The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

In contrast to Castro’s narrative, the true version is that the Bay of Pigs invasion was part of a civil war in which one side was supplied with arms, money, and training by the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, while the other side was supplied with the same kit by the US, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. If anyone doubts this version, let him examine the event’s rules of engagement, to which both sides scrupulously adhered: US forces never fired a shot at Castro’s combatants, and Castro’s forces never attacked offshore US support ships. Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

The Bay of Pigs was the second climax in a Cuban civil war that began on March 10, 1952 when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of Cuba in a coup. Immediately, a variety of disparate groups declared resistance to the new regime, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement being only one of many. The first climax in these civil wars was Castro’s triumph over Batista on December 31, 1958.

Within four days of Castro’s victory, a nascent resistance — reading the writing on the wall and unrelated to the Batista regime — declared against Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion two and a half years later was the second climax in the ongoing civil war.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful.

The Bay of Pigs veterans are dwindling in numbers, many having added their eternal energy toward Cuba’s liberation. Only 550 are left. My cousin Armandito died in 2010. The latest to pass away was Maximo “Ñato” Cruz just a short while ago, on November 26. Cruz was an exceptional hero, the leader of F Company, 2nd Battalion, who distinguished himself in combat during the Battle of the Rotonda to such a degree that he received the only battlefield promotion during the fight.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful. All of the exile and resident anti-Castro groups have renounced violence in achieving their aim of a free and democratic Cuba.

To commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ release, a small group of vets and vets’ relatives — in sincere flattery and imitation of the Run for the Wall ride — participated in a real (pedal) bike ride from the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana to Key West — as close to Cuba as possible. We called this our Run for the (Sea)Wall. Here’s my account of the journey.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized. Ubiquitous are Cuban coffee (espresso brewed with sugar), Cuban sandwiches (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles stacked between sliced French bread and ironed in a plancha, a waffle press-like flat grill), and black beans (as a standard side in nearly all restaurants). We heard Spanish more often than English, though everyone, except for the very recent arrivals (mostly Venezuelans), speaks both languages and uses them interchangeably. Unlike immigrant enclaves elsewhere, south Florida is no “enclave” of struggling refugees lacking in skills, knowledge, or financial nous and isolated from its native residents. On the contrary, the mélange is dynamic, inspiring, and surprisingly free of cross-cultural frictions.

My wife Tina and I left Boca Raton on fully loaded bikes in a drizzly dawn, aiming first for Miami. We’d been staying with my Venezuelan cousin, Marta, who’d finally gotten her green card two years ago. Our next destination was Key Biscayne, 72 miles away, where another cousin, MariCris — a Cuban this time — would put us up at her corporate condo.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized.

We reached Key Biscayne in one day, and on the next met with the president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Humberto “Chino” Argüelles, and a handful of veterans and family members at the Casa, the museum and headquarters of Brigade 2506. I was presented with a Brigade 2506 emblem and flag. One 82-year-old vet, Emilio “Ernesto Guerra” Martinez Venegas, had not been a member of the invasion force. Instead, he’d been a key participant in the subsequent infiltration programs, had been captured, and had spent 15 years in Castro’s prisons.

After touring the Casa and meeting with some of the veterans, we proceeded to Calle Ocho’s Bay of Pigs Monument, where — over the noise of traffic and tourist passersby — I explained the purpose of our ride: “Today we don’t mourn [the fighters’] defeat; we celebrate their freedom.” Our ride was "in remembrance of the patriots who gave their life, fortunes, and honor for Cuba’s liberty. Today we are all Cubans. Viva Cuba Libre!”

Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.

One passing Danish tourist, captivated by the event, offered to photograph our entire group in front of the monument. Carlos, a veteran paratrooper of the Bay of Pigs (and the cousin earlier mentioned) handed over his camera. Afterward, the Dane asked Carlos if he’d fought “on the Cuban side.” The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public. Carlos, momentarily baffled yet no stranger to such ignorance, just answered “Yes.”

He then offered to take his family members to lunch. I suggested Versailles, the iconic Cuban exile restaurant where the movers and shakers of the Cuban community had met for years to impress one another, argue politics, and concoct financial and insurrectional plans. He gave me the same look he’d given the Danish tourist, saying, “Versailles’ food is no longer what it used to be; Cubans no longer go there; it’s a tourist magnet with long lines. I know a better place.”

He led us to a Spanish restaurant full of old Cubans — all of whom he knew — taking advantage of the $12.95 set lunch, and introduced Tina and me to all of them. He flirted with the waitress — he was a regular — and she reparteed back. After she took our order, Carlos leaned over and said, “She’s Russian.” The fortyish blonde was the daughter of minor Russian functionaries once assigned to Cuba, where she’d grown up and learned Spanish.

The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public.

After a delicious meal of caldo gallego, merluza a la plancha and flan, we went to Books&Books in Coral Gables. It’s the flagship of south Florida’s best book store, and a microcosm of south Florida’s intellectual milieu. Books&Books is old fashioned: huge, rambling, encyclopedic — with books arranged thematically, irrespective of language, on the same dark oak shelves — liberal with easy chairs for tome dipping, and hosting a sophisticated coffee and snack bar. The staff is multilingual, knowledgeable, and very helpful. Apparently, the many customers in the aisles were unaware of the “death of the independent book store.” (And yes, they carried my book, Closing the Circle: A Memoir of Cuba, Exile, the Bay of Pigs and a Trans-Island Bike Journey. Whew!)

The next day we saddled up early and headed for the Florida Keys, along Miami’s M-path, a dedicated bike trail under the city’s elevated tramway. Carlos met us partway on his bike for a photo op along a defile of Royal Palms, the Cuban national tree. Because of injuries acquired at the butt end of a rifle from a sadistic guard in Castro’s Modelo Prison, Carlos has to lay down his bike, step into its triangular frame, lift it up, and step out of the frame to straddle the bike in order to mount it. Afterward we joined him for breakfast at the Rinconcito Cubano, an unassuming breakfast and lunch joint where, again, he knew all the patrons and waitresses and introduced us to them all.

Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga.

By lunchtime we reached Homestead, home of the Air Force base that welcomed the freed Bay of Pigs prisoners back on that Christmas Eve in 1962. Alina Lastra, sister of my late cousin Armandito Lastra, met us along the dedicated, tarmacked bike path. Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga. Again, we took pictures — this time with the Brigade 2506 flag and a rendition of the MAGA hat with “America” replaced by “Cuba.”

But now we faced the Everglades’ aptly named Overseas Highway, a single traffic lane each way, with a divider, over 20 miles long, connecting the tip of Florida to Key Largo over swampland and sea. But that is merely the first key in an improbable island chain that stretches 113 miles to Key West (Cayo Hueso). Luckily, the shoulder was six feet wide — wide enough to shield us from the impatient, albeit 55 MPH controlled, continuous traffic. Boring and stressful!

Key West was first connected to the road grid in 1928, with a couple of intermittent ferries. All the bridges along the way, including the famous seven-mile bridge, were completed and open to traffic in 1938, when FDR toured the finished highway. We did not enjoy the amenities of his tour, but after a 64-mile day, we were relieved to find a motel on Key Largo and indulge in a pricey blackened Yellowtail dinner.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

Of course, winter’s cold seldom finds the Florida Keys. New Year’s Eve welcomed us with 70 degree temperatures under bright sunshine in the morning. Hurricane Irma debris lined Highway 1 and sometimes blocked the adjacent bike path, a dedicated trail that often included its own connecting bridges separate from the vehicular bridges. Fishermen, some with tents and BBQs, lined these long bike and pedestrian spans. At times we had to dodge colorful iguanas, which otherwise mostly sunbathe on abandoned abutments and supporting berms, scurrying away when troubled.

Fifty-two miles to Marathon Key. Our tiredness and the isolation of our motel shielded us from the New Year's celebrations — raucous in a population given to no-shirts, no-shoes, and lots of recreational boozing.

* * *

Over the years Key Largo and Marathon Key have played a little-publicized but outsized role in US-Cuba relations. After the serial imposition of progressively stricter US embargos on the island, the Castro nomenclatura found itself in want of both luxuries and specialty technical apparatus. Even when these items could be obtained through convoluted schemes involving passthrough countries or ingenious smuggling, little foreign exchange was available to pay for them. So Fidel — or someone close to him who provided plausible deniability to the Comandante en Jefe — came up with a two-part idea implemented by the De la Guardia twins, Tony and Patricio, heroes of the Angola war, with popular (second only to Fidel) General Arnaldo “Negro” Ochoa, also from the Angola (and Somalia) war playing a supporting role.

Some funds for the operation were generated by charging Colombian drug runners a safe passage fee when traversing Cuban territorial waters. These funds were laundered by Fidel’s criminal asylee, Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier. Another part of the scheme involved stealing luxury yachts from Florida marinas. Since these were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued. As Nobel-nominated author Norberto Fuentes, best friend with Ochoa and Tony De la Guardia, relates in his book, Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, the yachts were then employed in the “Caribbean Express,” smuggling Marlboros, specialty arms, and technology obtained through the services of shady Florida arbitragers and go-betweens. The delivery, loading, payment, and shipping took place on Key Largo and Marathon Key. Everyone involved skimmed and squirreled away thousands of dollars (the principals, hundreds of thousands of dollars) — insurance policies, commissions and brokerage fees being frowned upon in socialist Cuba.

Since these stolen yachts were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued.

In 1989, for reasons that I can’t — yet — quite understand, Ochoa, the De la Guardia twins, and author Fuentes, all intimates of the Castros, were purged in a series of show trials reminiscent of Stalin’s in the 1930s. The charges had to do with drugs; the ostensible reason was the Castros’ desire to improve their image before international opinion. But there were other, murkier reasons, all too complex to elaborate here.

Ochoa and Antonio De la Guardia went to the firing squad. When Raúl Castro announced the verdict to Cuba’s rubberstamp constituent assembly, he was drunk and tearful and wore a bullet-proof vest; Arnaldo Ochoa was one of his best friends. Norberto Fuentes was saved through the special pleading of Fidel’s friend, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer. Fuentes now lives in Miami surrounded by his Castro-era memorabilia, in the same building as my cousin Carlos’ son. Fuentes and Carlos were schoolmates before the Revolution.

And the stolen luxury yachts? These became part of the fleet that takes rich tourists out on exclusive fishing excursions around Cuba.

* * *

The run down to Key West, at 48 miles, was our shortest — and most expensive, with a basic Best Western room costing over $300, not untypical of Key West prices. Carlos tells a story of impetuously driving down to Key West 30 years ago on New Year’s Eve for his honeymoon. At the first likely lodging he encountered, he inquired about a room. The attendant asked if he had a reservation.

“No,” answered the newlyweds. The attendant immediately began laughing. Carlos avers that, to this day, the man is still laughing. He adds that every subsequent motel they tried — even as they then began driving back to Miami — was fully booked. Nevertheless, we had our Best Western room and at 5 p.m. headed for El Siboney, a popular Cuban restaurant only two blocks away, hoping to avoid the crowds that are given to much later, Latin eating habits. Still, Tina and I — by now our small group had been reduced to just the two of us, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with age, health and the holidays — had to wait in line.

End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.

Then, on January 2, at dawn, we packed up and headed the three blocks to the monument that marks the southernmost point of the US and declares in bold print, “90 Miles to Cuba.” It was a blustery day with tourists already posing before the giant faux buoy for pictures. We waited our turn. Then we posed our bikes before the monument, unfurled the Brigade 2506 flag, and recited José Martí’s La Rosa Blanca:

Cultivo una rosa blanca                            I cultivate a white rose
en junio como en enero                              in June as in January
para el amigo sincero                                 for the sincere friend
que me da su mano franca.                        that proffers his open hand.
Pero para el cruel que me arranca             But for the knave that rips out
el corazón con que vivo,                             the heart that gives me life,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo,                              I cultivate neither thistle nor nettle,
cultivo la rosa blanca.                               I cultivate a white rose.

I then pivoted towards Cuba, saluted the Castros with a single finger, folded our flag, and headed back to Boca.

* * *

After enduring nearly two years in Castro’s prisons, 240 out of approximately 1,400 Bay of Pigs veterans enlisted in the US military. Most fought in Vietnam. Both operations ended in defeat. Both sets of vets were widely spurned upon their return to the United States. But that attitude is finally changing.




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Alas, Zimbabwe!

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I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




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Alas, Zimbabwe!

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I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




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Japan: A Love Song

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For the past few decades, Japan has been known for its stagnant economy, falling stock market, and most importantly its terrible demographics.

For almost three decades, Japan’s GDP growth has mostly been less than 2%, has been negative for several of these years, and has often hovered close to zero. The net result is that its GDP is almost the same that it was 25 years ago.

The stock market index (Nikkei 225), which at the beginning of 1990 stood at 40,960, is now less than half that, despite a 27-year gap. Malinvestments in infrastructure and cross-holding of shares among companies, and the resulting crony capitalism, get a lot of the blame for draining away Japan’s competitiveness. Confucian culture is blamed for a lack of creativity and an environment in which wrongs done by senior officials go unchallenged.

You can pay money to lie on a bed with a girl who does no more than hold your hand. There are vending machines that dispense used panties.

But the real problem of Japan is supposed to be its demographic meltdown. The population is falling and the proportion of old people is increasing. The median age is 46.9 years and increasing, and the elderly dependency ratio is 42.7%. By 2050, Japan’s population is expected to fall to 109 million from the current 127 million, while the dependency ratio will continue to increase.

Major media publish regular reports about the Japanese refusing to have sex, and the large number of people in their forties who are still virgins. The “vagaries” of Japanese sexual life amuse outsiders. Manga (comics) and anime (animation) cater to fantasy by creating virtual worlds. People play pachinko (an arcade game like pinball, also used for gambling) for 18 hours a day. Girls in cute uniforms entice customers into maid-cafes, or perhaps to date joshi kosei (high school) girls. You can pay money to lie on a bed with a girl who does no more than hold your hand. There are vending machines that dispense used panties.

The unemployment rate is a mere 3%, and during my recent visit to Japan most companies told me how extremely difficult it has become for them to find recruits. Japan refuses to admit refugees or migrants, which in today’s world is seen as extremely close-minded, perhaps even bigoted.

In the early 1990s, people looked up to Japan. In retrospect we can see that the country’s economic growth and stock index were peaking.

All the above appear in the international media as something very unfavorable about Japan. International organizations beg Japan to listen to tearjerking stories about Syria and Libya, and to show compassion. The Japanese are constantly reminded that if they want their old and infirm people to be looked after, they must allow immigration. While the population of Canada is 21% first-generation immigrant, and Australia 26%, Japan is still 98.5% ethnically Japanese. The two largest ethnic minorities — Korean and Chinese — make up less than 1%. Japan simply does not want outsiders.

When I was doing my MBA in the early 1990s, people looked up to Japan. In retrospect we can see that the country’s economic growth and stock index were peaking. Opinion pieces on the outrageous price of real estate were common. At one point, the assessed value Tokyo’s Imperial Palace grounds was higher than that of the entire state of California.

In my MBA classes we heard lectures on Kaizen and other Japanese practices, terms that hardly find mention in the media these days. We were constantly reminded of how well the Japanese work in groups, and how this should be implemented in the West.

So which is true? The romanticized portrayal of the ’90s, when Japan was seen as the solution to the world’s problems, or today’s dismal caricature, in which Japan is part laughingstock and part rapidly declining society headed toward self-destruction?

From factory floors to homes, robots have made huge inroads into the Japanese society. They might even nullify the risk that the country may lack workers.

In both cases, in my view, the world has looked for mere rationalizations, rather than dissecting the underlying issues.

I am a huge fan of Japan. In Japan I see the future of humanity. Perhaps Korea and China should be included in that vision of the future. South Koreans and Chinese — who might superficially dislike Japan — have eagerly copied Japanese ways. Japanese products are sold in abundance in East and Southeast Asia. All the way to Malaysia and Singapore, people look for models to Japan and now increasingly to South Korea, which copied its economic miracle from Japan.

Blaming the Japanese for not being innovative is a distortion of reality. An American geologist with whom I recently spent a couple of days in Japan called the young Japanese “young Einsteins,” while showing me an innovative product that a large Japanese company has developed. From factory floors to homes, robots have made huge inroads into the Japanese society. They might even nullify the risk that the country may lack workers.

Japan has produced a mind-boggling array of international brands: Toyota, Sony, Citizen, Canon, Hitachi, Komatsu, Nikon, Panasonic, Toshiba, Honda, Seiko . . . the quality, perfection, passion, devotion, and mindfulness that these brands embody are hard to beat. And it’s not just the brands. Quality, cleanliness, and attention to detail is everywhere in Japan. Only a very few countries in Europe enjoy similar levels of devotion to excellence.

Politeness is one of the major pillars of any civilization. It shows respect for the other individuals, and it reflects how people live, work, and engage with others. And Japan is among the politest societies in the world. There are seven possible conjugations for most verbs, depending on how polite the speaker wants to be. I have traveled a lot on Japanese trains, and not once did the person sitting in front of me fail to ask my permission before reclining his seat. They ask, despite the ample leg space provided in these trains. When they arrive at their destinations, they always set their seats straight and organize the magazines as they were when they arrived.

Quality, cleanliness, and attention to detail is everywhere in Japan. Only a very few countries in Europe enjoy similar levels of devotion to excellence.

I cannot remember when my train was ever late, even by a minute. In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and increasingly in China, even in crowded subways, people mostly do not use the seats at the entrance of the compartments, so that they are always available for pregnant women and the elderly. The seats remain empty because travelers don’t want to embarrass any pregnant women or old people who may arrive later, by vacating the seat in their presence. No one talks on his phone or plays music using a speakerphone. Mostly people don’t even talk. They are at peace even on the subways, their ears unviolated by the noise of others.

I try my best to be polite, but Japanese beat me every single time. One must try to understand the mind and heart that they put into their work, and how they respect their clients. By presenting this kind of model, Japan has exported for free its civilizing culture to any society that is prepared to learn it.

Japan was almost completely destroyed in World War II, and rose from the ashes through sheer willpower. It is a country whose heartfelt honesty, respect, and integrity I am in love with.

A few months after the Tsunami of 2011, I visited the area around the town of Sendai, which had been devastated. There had been no — zero — rioting or robbery. People hadn’t begged the government for help; within months they had fixed up the place themselves. Piles and piles of crushed cars stood in neat heaps. Where the houses once stood had been cleaned up. Roads had been constructed so that a new city could grow up around them. Only someone without a heart could have kept from crying to see what a group of proud people can achieve.

By presenting this kind of model, Japan has exported for free its civilizing culture to any society that is prepared to learn it.

Throughout the world, many groups complain about the historical injustices that “they” (actually their ancestors) faced. In 1945, Japan stood extremely humiliated and virtually destroyed. But ask Japanese about their sufferings of those days, and you will very likely get a blank stare. Proud people do not blame their past for their present.

Japan is still 98.5% Japanese. Is that inward-looking and racist? Maybe that is the wrong question. Multi-ethnic societies have worked virtually nowhere in the world. People who arrived in Europe as long as 1,400 years ago — Romani gypsies — are still a separate community. As a group, they are not only unassimilated; they haven’t integrated with the mainstream ways of life. People tend to get ghettoized on racial, religious, or linguistic lines. That has been the history of North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Japan has avoided all of the associated social problems — including that of crime and terrorism — that today afflict the developed world.

Crime is virtually unknown in Japan. No one locks his bicycle, and people often leave their belongings — including purses — unattended. Late at night, young women can walk the streets alone, unaccosted, even in the areas controlled by Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Six-year-old kids can be seen crossing the road all alone.

Japanese bureaucracy is believed to be slow and an impediment to innovation. It is hard to measure how much more bureaucratic Japan is compared to other developed nations, but the Economist’s crony-capitalism index puts Japan — again quite contrary to popular beliefs — better than the USA and the UK.

Is it at all possible that a counterfactual narrative was constructed by the leftist social justice warriors who control the media, to pressure Japan into doing the bidding of pro-multicultural, pro-diversity international organizations?

Crime is virtually unknown in Japan. No one locks his bicycle, and people often leave their belongings — including purses — unattended.

An outsider does react with shock to some of the images of anime and manga, and the idea of buying used schoolgirls' panties in vending machines. But the reality is that sexual perversion is not unique to Japan. In the West the law is so strict that a lot of perversion remains hidden. But one does get a glimpse of what so many western men look for when they go to Thailand and surrounding countries, and to Latin America.

What I find impressive is that what Japan does is right in your face — Japan is like the Amsterdam of Asia.

Forty-two percent of men and 44.2% of women between the age of 18 and 34 years are said to be virgins, a statistic one often reads in the international media. But this statistic pools together a broad band of ages. There is nothing unusual — or even wrong — about 18-year-olds being virgins.

Another often quoted number is that one out of four Japanese over the age of 30 years is still a virgin. This is wrong, for the data applies only to unmarried people, yet the word “unmarried” is often left out. Eighty-six percent of men and 89% of women eventually marry. So the correct estimate of virgin Japanese over the age of 30 years is less than 4%, far less than the media would have you believe.

There is really not much about Japan’s demographics that is abnormal. The country's native birth rate compares well with that of other wealthy economies.

Are single mothers and promiscuity really the metric of a better society? Western media seem to suggest this is so. There is indeed a correlation between being conscientious and shyness in sexual matters. Only 2% of Japanese children are born outside marriage, compared with 40% in the UK and the US. This is to be celebrated, not ridiculed.

There is really not much about Japan’s demographics that is abnormal. The country's native birth rate compares well with that of other wealthy economies. There is indeed a problem in that Japanese live longer, surviving into their unproductive years farther than people elsewhere — hence the high and growing dependency ratio. This is a problem, but it is a problem of success, not of failure.

I cannot but wonder if Japan is demonized for refusing to promote immigration or promiscuity. In my view it is perhaps the best large country in the developed world — for exactly the reasons it is, ironically, demonized for. My Japanese friends tell me about the inhibitions that kids develop under a very strict social structure, but for me as an outsider — a gaijin, literally “not one of us” — it is hard to understand Japan’s social dynamics completely. Japan indeed has its problems, but they are far outweighed by the great goodness of the place. It is one of humanity’s finest accomplishments, which should be celebrated not just by Japanese but by everyone.




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Notes on the Extinctions at the Top of the World

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Between bouts of ducking and covering under my second-grade desk in case the Russians dropped an atom bomb on our classroom, I spent a lot of time studying geography. Not because my teacher emphasized matters geographical, but because she had a thing about homework. And not in a good way.

On the first day of class she handed out the first assignment and I did the obvious thing. I forgot about it. She didn’t forget, though, and the next morning, while the other kids were enjoying recess, I got invited to sit at my desk and complete the work. I passed the time staring at islands on the big world map next to the blackboard. On the third day I owed two homeworks, both of which would have to be turned in before I could head out to recess. Come April, I owed a hundred-and-some homeworks and all possibility of recess had forever receded below the horizon. If my family hadn’t moved to another city, I’d still be in second grade, puzzling over the Rorschach shapes of faraway islands.

Svalbard has the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs.

There are a lot of islands in the world, and I came out of that experience with a geographical bucket list of almost bottomless capacity. It was, looking back, a list based on shape and remoteness instead of anything particular my seven-year-old self knew about any of the islands. Which is how my seven-year-old self wound up sending me to Svalbard more than half a century later, still thinking the place should be called Spitzbergen, the way it used to be.

The two things that I knew about Svalbard were that it is very far north, farther north, even, than Siberia, as far north as the northernmost reaches of Greenland; and that Svalbard had the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs. Also, my seven-year-old self wanted to be there in the winter for the true Svalbard experience, and to see the Northern lights.

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, is the former silver medalist for the title of northernmost civilian place on the planet. In the ’90s it got defaulted up to northernmost when the model Soviet city 50 miles west and a dozen or so closer to the pole was disqualified on account of going out of business. My wife and I lodged in a room in Longyearbyen, in barracks that housed coal miners before the miners rioted over their poor living conditions. Longyearbyen seemed an apt enough name for somewhere to be stuck on a yearlong contract digging coal. No wonder the miners rioted. It took a while for me to find out that the town was named after John Munro Longyear, the Michigan timber baron who began the mining operations in 1906.

It looked like a rundown middle-school gym, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds.

People who didn’t riot were the inhabitants of the Soviet model city. According to the young Russian who showed us around, it had been a very desirable place to be, Soviet-Unionwise. It’s called Pyramiden and people waited years to be assigned there. Like Longyearbyen, Pyramiden was a coal-mining town. We boated over one day to check it out.

There was a big, brass, snow-blown bust of Lenin welcoming us to the Sports Palace. The Palace had a basketball court and a tawdry little music room and an even tawdrier niche fitted out with shelves that some wag had designated as a library. It looked like a rundown middle-school gym in a community that had experienced a property-tax revolt, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds. There was also a sinister sounding building called the Tulip Hotel, which, since we weren’t Soviet royalty off on a junket, we weren’t allowed inside of. “Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

Free included a bleak apartment in the men’s building, if you were a guy. In the ladies’, if you weren’t. There were rumors of a secret tunnel connecting the two which were hard to credit since both buildings were constructed several feet off the ground because of permafrost. Still, if you could manage to hook up with a coal miner of the opposite sex you hit the jackpot because married people got upgraded to a couple’s apartment. There must have been a limited number of those apartments, though, or people would have been allowed to meet out in the open rather than having to sneak around in tunnels.

Free also, of course, included all the labor those miners put in. And the food, the food was free, too. Evidence about what kind of food you can get for free lurks in the abandoned institutional kitchen. Mostly it seemed to have been canned peas stirred in huge electric-powered tubs that reminded me of the first-generation washing machines you see in photographs from the Depression. Free industrial peas at the end of working all day in the mines — no wonder the vodka was free, too. The vodka is still there. You can purchase a shot at the northernmost bar in the world. One taste, and you realize why it hasn’t migrated to a more competitive locale. And why it had to be free.

“Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

High class people. Doctors. Lawyers. Folks with political pull pulled strings to get sent to a place farther north than Siberia so they could work in mines all day and eat cafeteria peas at night and hook up in tunnels like horny junior-high kids and shoot down vodka that would have etched the chrome off the fancy ZiL limousines the nomenklatura were chauffeured around in back home. A few miles away, Norwegian miners were rioting because they didn’t like the rooms they were given, but these poor schnooks thought they were living in paradise. There may have been Northern lights somewhere, but I wouldn’t know. It turns out the Northern lights are easier to see when it isn’t snowing all the time.

Also, I should have given a bit more thought to that business about seeing polar bears. Even my seven-year-old brain could have put it together. Bears. Winter. Hibernation. But I wasn’t any more analytical when I planned the trip than I’d been about not turning in my homework.

Or the bear thing may have had something to do with the fact that polar bears are dying out. All the right people say so. The pack ice is melting and bears all over the Arctic are falling into the water and starving to death, so if you live in Churchill, keep a close eye on your pets. There are a lot of hungry bears wading ashore. But people in Svalbard didn’t seem to be worried about polar bears dying out. They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Longyearbyen has a university, the Harvard of the Arctic, according to the Toronto Star, where you can study oceanography, but I wouldn’t. Studying oceanography involves SCUBA diving, and there are plenty of fine programs at places more equatorial than the Barents Sea. They have a nice museum at the university, though, a museum that focuses on geology and, this being Svalbard, the glaciers that sit on top of the geology. It was while I was reading about those glaciers that I came across this:

For the past four to five thousand years the Earth has been subject to a marked cooling, which gradually has created better conditions for the growth of glaciers and permafrost. Five thousand years ago the average temperature in Svalbard was around 4 degrees warmer than today. Then, one would probably have had to climb 200-400m up in the mountains in order to find permafrost, and many of today’s glaciers would not then have existed. The largest glaciers would have existed in a much reduced size. Many of Svalbard’s glaciers, therefore, are less than three to four thousand years old.

They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Svalbard has gotten a lot of attention over the past few months for being the ground zero of global warming. Maybe, even, a bit above zero, sometimes. Degrees on Svalbard have shot up quicker than degrees anywhere else on earth, which got me to wondering about those polar bears. Polar bears have been floating around in the Arctic for something like 200,000 years. Even if Svalbard is warming up today, what were they floating on 5,000 years ago? The sign didn’t say, so I had to look it up on my own. And discovered that there are two schools of thought on the bear situation.

The first is the one you’ve already heard. The other is that the bear population has exploded in recent years, mainly because of an international ban on polar bear hunting. When I tried to look up the exact numbers, I found some in the articles that thought there were more bears than ever. Twenty-five thousand, and climbing. Thirty-thousand, with populations of bears well established in dozens of locations throughout the polar region. The articles that thought the bears were dying out talked about pack ice. Less pack ice than ever. You can drive to the North Pole in your bass boat, if you want to.

Now I’m not a polar bear scientist and I’m not qualified to judge the quality of those articles, but it did seem to me that one side was willing to commit to real numbers and the other, well, the other weaseled out of addressing the question.




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Temporization Fugit

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As speculated in a June 7 feature here, President Trump today (June 16) announced, before a packed Miami crowd, a big change in US-Cuba policy. Though tourism to the island by American-based visitors has been technically banned by the embargo for quite some time, the 2014 Obama thaw fudged the issue in a variety of ways. President Trump has just dumped the fudge.

Pre-Obama’s thaw, regulations allowed Americans to visit Cuba under a variety of categories, including a people-to-people category — once their itinerary had been vetted by the Treasury Department. Under that category, only organized tour groups with a detailed itinerary were allowed to visit, with the intent of American folks and Cuban folks getting to know each other.

Compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

On December 2014, President Obama eliminated the vetting process and allowed visitors to vet themselves on an honor system. At the same time, visitors returning from the island weren’t scrutinized, only questioned perfunctorily or not at all, about their compliance with US government regulations.

According to CNBC, “President Trump's policy restricts this form of travel to Cuba for individuals. Americans pursuing this type of travel would have to go in groups.” And their compliance with the travel regulations in all categories will be strictly enforced.

But the ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company, GAESA. "The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry. The outcome of the last administration's executive action has only been more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement," Trump said in Miami on Friday.

The ultimate aim of the new policy is to restrict American tourist dollars going to businesses owned by the Cuban military's holding company.

According to Fox News, The policy calls on Americans traveling to Cuba to use "private businesses and services provided by the Cuban people, rather than businesses and services provided by GAESA." In effect, government hotels and resorts are out. US-based visitors must use private B&Bs and restaurants otherwise known as casas particulares and paladares.

The new policy does not go into effect until the new regulations are issued. We await the Cuban government’s reaction . . .




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Talk Tough but Temporize

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During the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump criticized President Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to reverse it. However, after Trump’s win, during the transition, “he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson privately expressed support for Obama’s Cuba policy,” according to a June 2 ABC News report.

In typical Trump fashion, the candidate talked tough but the president is keeping his options open as he educates himself on the issues. And in typical government fashion, a “policy review” under the auspices of the National Security Council was set up to study the issues. It was supposed to report its recommendations on May 20, the 115th anniversary of Cuban independence, but the issues turned out to be more complex than originally envisioned, and Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on that hallowed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

Yes, that’s right: in a Wilsonian-Carterian flourish, Trump’s Cuba policy “will have important differences with respect to that of Barack Obama, especially with a ‘major emphasis’ on human rights,” according to Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America.

Saudi Arabia — President Trump’s location on the appointed day — didn’t seem like an appropriate venue to berate Cuba on its human rights record.

It seems — to a cynic who might ignore the president’s ostensible, stated reason — that Trump’s thrust is based on two objectives. One is the aim, originating in a gut reaction, to reverse anything Obama did; the other is more nakedly political: according to the Associated Press, the Trump administration wants to maintain good relations with Marco Rubio, who sits on the Senate committee investigating Trump’s relations with Russia, and Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — both Cuban-Americans, and the latter a not-too-distant relative of the Castros.

Meanwhile, in a Trumpian flourish just before leaving office, Obama restricted Cuban immigration by rescinding the so-called “Wet foot, Dry foot” policy whereby a Cuban caught on the waters between Cuba and the United States ("wet feet") would summarily be sent home or to a third country. One who makes it to shore ("dry feet") can remain in the United States, and would later qualify for expedited legal permanent resident status in accordance with the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, and eventually US citizenship.

The Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Obama’s Cuba policy proceeds from the fact that its favorable aspects conflict with its unfavorable consequences. While the reduced restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba that President Obama signed as an executive order in 2014 have tripled leisure travel to nearly 300,000 last year, much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the state security (repressive) apparatus. Organized tours, especially in the “people-to-people” and “educational” categories are little better, spending all their time under direct government control, visiting such exciting venues as printing workshops, organic farmers’ cooperative markets, and other government-organized venues, while traveling in government tour buses with government guides.

Those dollars strengthen the security organs. According to ABC News, arrests and detentions climbed from 8,899 in 2014 to 9,940 in 2016.

Much of the tourist money is spent at all-inclusive resorts run by Cuban military conglomerates that fuel the repressive state security apparatus.

On the other hand, continues the ABC report, a significant proportion of travelers eschewed organized tours, opting instead to explore Cuba on their own and thereby “injecting hundreds of millions in US spending into privately owned businesses on the island,” businesses made possible by the 201 private enterprises (especially B&Bs and restaurants) legalized by the regime since 2010, and “supercharging the growth of an entrepreneurial middle-class.”

Still, the hype has blinded what ought to be sober players into overreach. President Obama did not change the requirements for US travelers to Cuba; he only put compliance with them on the honor system, a system that still requires registering with the US Treasury Dept. The same ABC News report I quote here incorrectly states that “Obama eliminated that requirement.”

And it’s not just ABC News. Airlines such as JetBlue, American, Silver Airways, and Frontier, anticipating tens of thousands of travelers to book their own, independent trips to Cuba, have had to cut back considerably. Silver and Frontier have both canceled all their flights, citing "costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions." In other words, the costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines. Earlier this year, JetBlue announced it would use smaller planes for its Cuba flights, and American Airlines cut its daily flights to Cuba by 25%.

The Obama changes did increase US travel to Cuba, just not as much as some expected. NBC News reports that “according to the state-run site CubaDebate, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba spiked in January of this year at 43,200. CubaDebate said that's a 125% increase from January of last year.” In addition, it reported 31,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island in January.

The costs involved with unloading bags, cleaning the aircraft, customs procedures, etc. were higher than expected, doubtless because of the Cuban government milking the airlines.

Those Cuban-Americans recently became a political football for cruise lines, which also dove into the liberalized US-Cuba travel market. The Cuban government does not recognize naturalized US citizenship by any Cuban-born individual: in their eyes such people are still Cuban citizens. Many of these expatriates, although allowed to visit relatives in Cuba under one of the allowed US categories of travelers, refused to set foot on the island for any prolonged length of time, declining to give even one dollar to the regime. But the promise of a cruise with all the amenities provided by a US ship and onshore visits a matter of only hours on terra firma suddenly attracted many.

But it was not to be.

The Cuban government declared that Cuban-born Cuban-Americans would not be allowed on shore from any visiting US cruise ship, referring to an earlier Cuban law that prohibited any Cuban-born person returning from to the island by sea. This was probably meant to place a fig leaf over the prosecution of any foreign-based infiltrators.

So, initially, Carnival Corporation refused to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans. Two lawsuits put paid to that. They were filed in federal court in Miami: a class-action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Carnival. According to the Miami Herald, “the lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.”

Carnival then decided to sell tickets to Cuban-Americans but delayed its cruises until Cuba changed its policy — which it did, effective April 26, 2016. The first cruise sailed on May 1, 2016.

Cuba has not adapted well to the increase in visits. Forget booking a hotel room in Havana during the peak season of November-April on your own; rely instead on a package tour. And good luck finding a B&B, called in Cuba a casa particular. Under the Obama initiatives, both governments have struck agreements to cooperate on issues ranging from human trafficking to oil spills, and even increased internet access — a pledge extracted out of Raul Castro by President Obama. The Cuban government has “opened nearly 400 public Wi-Fi access points across the country,” according to the AP. But that reality is much less than meets expectations. The outlets are mostly in parks and plazas and only provide email connections. Full internet access, while more available than before, is beyond most Cubans’ budgets and remains frustratingly slow.

Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years.

The challenge for the Trump administration’s policy reset is to keep the good bits — full diplomatic relations, some relative freedom of travel, the benefits to Cuba’s private sector, etc. — while limiting Americans from doing business with the Cuban security organs, “according to a Trump administration official and a person involved in the ongoing policy review” (ABC report). Additionally, what with President Trump’s emphasis on jobs, Engage Cuba, a pro-détente group, released a study this May asserting “that a complete rollback of Obama’s Cuba policy would cost airlines and cruise lines $3.5 billion over the next four years and lead to the loss of 10,154 travel jobs.” (Wow, really? Such incredible specificity!)

One novel proposal that might be included in the Cuba policy reset — to ensure the support of the Cuban-Americans — is to impose a 2% export tax on US agricultural products sent to the island. “It is a politically creative, financially plausible measure and may possibly be a first step toward a comprehensive settlement of compensation to those who hold certified claims,” said Richard Feinberg, a former assistant to President Clinton and author of a Brookings Institution study on Cuban claims published in 2015. Of course, whether that 2%, factored into the price of the exports, would come out of the exporters’ profits or out of the Cuban government’s pockets is up for negotiation — if the proposal is implemented. Cuba owes about $8 billion for confiscations and expropriations to US citizens. At that rate, repayment would take about 400 years, though the majority of small claims could be settled with dispatch.

* * *

Oh, yes . . . and what about those extra 1,041 arrests and detentions in 2016? ABC News reports, “Cuban officials say many of those arrests are deliberately provoked by dissidents who are funded and backed by anti-Castro groups with the deliberate objective of driving up detention statistics.”

No doubt those officials saw the May issue of the Cuban American National Foundation’s Boletín Informativo, displaying a photograph of a protester racing in front of Havana’s May Day parade waving an American flag in the air and wearing a Cuban flag on his chest. Daniel Llorente Miranda’s action took the security organs by surprise. After a few seconds’ chase, they threw him to the tarmac and brutally beat him.




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Volo, Veni, Velo, Vidi

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Cosa ni pensi di Trump? (What do you think of Trump?)

It was a question my wife Tina and I were asked our very first day in Sicily and nearly every other day on our 30-day bicycle circumnavigation of the island this February. The question was usually prefaced by apologies, either verbal or physical, as if it were a too-personal intrusion (unusual for Europeans, who generally disdain small talk — unless it’s banter — in favor of meatier fare). It was always asked in earnest, never in a challenging manner.

One Dutch couple in the little town of Taormina combined both approaches. On finding out we were Americans, they kiddingly asked if we’d be able to return home. Trump had just issued his ill-conceived travel ban and we were unaware of it, news being an unnecessary intrusion when I travel. We joined in their kidding about America’s new president until I reminded them of Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’ version of the Donald, at which point they sheepishly concurred and demurred. Ditto for a Polish couple whose criticism of Trump was more earnest until I reminded them of the Kaczynski brothers’ populist policies. They said Poland was a new democracy, subject to mistakes, while they expected more from the US, a mature democracy. I replied that I was glad we were still, at least, young at heart.

The Italians, however, were transparently curious. They didn’t trust their media and wanted an eyewitness opinion. One averred that he’d heard Trump was another Hitler. I told him Trump wasn’t as bad as Mussolini or Berlusconi, with only a pussycat’s handful of “bunga, bunga.”

Taormina is a small, picturesque, ancient town atop an impossibly steep hill. It boasts the best preserved (outside of Greece) 3rd-century BC Greek theater. We were about two-thirds done with our counterclockwise bike tour of the island when we were taken aback by Italian soldiers in full deployment eyeing us at Taormina’s medieval gates. Curious, I approached one and politely asked the way to Corso Umberto I, the location of our lodging. He smiled and said we were on it.

At our B&B I asked our host why the town was occupied by the army. “Trump-Putin summit,” he answered.

Incredulous, I gesticulated, “Today? Two or three days . . . soon?”

When Tina and I had circumbiked Iceland, we’d visited the house where the Reagan-Gorbachev summit was held. We’d lingered long, savoring the very spot where the Cold War had ended. Would Taormina rise to the occasion?

Not a chance, according to The Economist. One anti-Trump acquaintance observed that it was fitting that Trump — a man of business who wants respect — and Putin, a gangster, should meet in the birthplace of the Mafia.

“No, no,” our host answered, “Maggio (May).”

The following morning we headed to the Greek theater. Next door, the Grand Hotel Timeo, an historic old hotel, was closed for renovations. The Timeo counted among its guests Goethe, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Edward VII, D.H. Lawrence, Truman Capote, and now, we assumed, either Trump, Putin, or both. Adjacent, the street was being dug up by workmen upgrading the communications infrastructure — with soldiers overlooking. Yet Italy never ceases to amaze. Between midnight and 6 AM, all the soldiers disappear. Go figure.

Our Thing

Today, according to one source, the Mafia lies dormant in Sicily, having moved what operations it still retains to Calabria, Italy’s boot toe. Many of the business establishments we passed sported a window sticker declaring that they’d joined Addiopizzo, an organization of businesses that refuse to pay protection money and that rally around one another when fingered. Tourist curio shops sell Sono il padrino (I am the godfather) T-shirts and coffee cups, many with your name custom printed. Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone character pictures are everywhere. There is even an anti-Mafia museum, the home of CIDMA (Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulla Mafia e Movimento Antimafia), in the town of Corleone, 60 km south of Palermo.

Up until the mid-1990s the La Societa Onorata, or Cosa Nostra, was no joke. But then, in 1982, Tommaso Buscetta, a “man of honor,” turned rat when he was arrested. After four years of interrogation under magistrate Giovanni Falcone, 584 Mafiosi were put on trial — the maxiprocesso or supertrial — in a specially constructed bunker in Palermo, Sicily’s capital. The trial took two years and sometimes descended into farce with loud and disruptive behavior, some defendants acting as their own lawyers flamboyantly spouting nonsense, indulging in non sequiturs and endless sophistry, another one literally stapling his mouth shut to signify his commitment to omerta, the code of silence, and another feigning madness with outbursts so disruptive he had to be put into a straitjacket. The trial resulted in 347 convictions, of which 19 were life imprisonments.

It would surprise no libertarian that the Mafia’s roots lie in government failure, specifically a law enforcement failure.

The men of honor struck back, as they had every time in the past. In 1988 they murdered a Palermo judge and his son, then an anti-Mafia prosecutor, and finally, in 1992 Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, another courageous anti-Mafia magistrate. But this time they’d gone too far. In January 1993, the authorities arrested the capo di tutti capi, or boss of all bosses, Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the most wanted man in Europe. He was charged with a host of murders, including those of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, and sentenced to life imprisonment, effectively decapitating the organization (which might turn out to be a Hydra).

It would surprise no libertarian that the Mafia’s roots lie in government failure, specifically a law enforcement failure. Sicilians had always sought independence and only reluctantly joined Italy in 1861 after Garibaldi promised them autonomy. Between 1200 and Italian unification, Sicily was ruled — usually at a distance and often as an afterthought — by Germany, France, Aragon, Spain, Savoy, Austria, Naples, and England, mostly in that order. Not strong enough to guard their independence, Sicilians would invite an outsider to help them rid themselves of the occupier du jour. The new bosses liked the island, refused to leave, and ruled desultorily, leading to revolt and a repetition of the cycle. It was a prime environment for the nurturing of brigands and private militias specializing in protection.

The word mafia was first used in 1863 to describe that special combination of thievery, extortion, and protection by organized groups. Serious anti-Mafia campaigns began in 1925 with Benito Mussolini, who promised to make government work. It didn’t work, at least permanently. The “men of honor” fought back, joining an unexpected ally: the US government.

Anticipating the Allies’ invasion of Europe through Sicily in 1943, the US wanted to ensure that the landings, launched from North Africa, would be greeted with respect. In 1936 Charles “Lucky” Luciano, capo di tutti capi of Mafia operations in America, had begun serving a 30 to 50 year sentence in federal prison, having been convicted of 62 counts of compulsory prostitution. In 1942 the US Office of Naval Intelligence approached Luciano, who was still running his operation from inside prison, seeking help with the Sicily landings.

Lucky and the Navy struck a secret deal: (1) East coast dockworkers, controlled by the mob, would not go on strike for the duration of the war and would actively resist any attempts at sabotage; and (2) the Sicilian Mafia would grease the skids for the Allies’ invasion through espionage, sabotage, and prepping of the local population. In return, Luciano’s sentence would be commuted and he would be deported to Sicily after the war.

It is worth pointing out here, for context and perspective, that this controversial but successful Mafia-US Government cooperation on national security set the precedent for (and reduced the absurdity of) the CIA’s 18-year-later Castro assassination attempt collaboration.

In 1968, the Italian government again went after the Mafia, following a protracted inter-Mafia killing spree that caught many innocents in its crossfire. However, out of 2,000 arrests only 117 Mafiosi were put on trial and most were acquitted or received light sentences. It was this First Mafia War, its subsequent acquittals — attributed to crooked politicians and policemen — and a Second Mafia War in the early 1980s that galvanized public opinion against the Mafia and invigorated magistrates Falcone’s and Borsellino’s prosecution.

Africans, Greeks, Romans, and Vikings

Sicily is indirectly one of my ancestral homelands. The Vikings, later known as Normans, invaded the island in 1061, only five years before their invasion of Britain. Gerhard, my original progenitor (on my mother’s side, as far back as I can trace) was one of those northern Germanic-Norse warriors who sacked and occupied Rome in the 8th century. His lineage, during Italy’s Norman invasion, became Gherardini and later, during Britain’s Norman invasion, Gerald. Soon thereafter, taking on the Welsh “son of” prefix, it became Fitzgerald, my mother’s maiden name.

The Greek city-states had no formal organization among them; they shared only a language and culture.

Sicily is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Its indigenous people — about which little is known — were displaced and incorporated by invading Sicels, Elymians, and Phoenicians, who later became known as Carthaginians (in present-day Tunisia, only 96 miles away from Sicily, with a stepping-stone island in between). By 800 BC, Greek merchants had established trading posts that soon developed into colonies that later became independent, with Syracuse (the home of Archimedes), Himera, and Akragas (today’s Agrigento) becoming some of the world’s largest cities at the time. In all, there were seventeen major Greek cities on Sicily, entangled in ever-changing alliances and wars with one another, with cities in Greece proper, and with cities in the broader Greek world and even outside it.

It’s important to note the political structure of these entities. Unlike Rome, a unified, centrally administered empire, Greece consisted of independent city-states not only in the area of present-day Greece but extending from the Black Sea all the way to Spain, North Africa, France, and Italy. They had no formal organization among them; they shared only a language and culture.

Enter Rome. Between 264 and 146 BC, Rome fought Carthage (Tunisia) for control of the Mediterranean in the three so-called Punic Wars, eventually prevailing and, to prevent any resurgence, sacking and burning the city of Carthage, condemning 50,000 survivors to slavery. The victors took control of Sicily in 241 BC and turned it into Rome’s first province. Tragically, Archimedes became a casualtyof the conflict between Rome and Carthage.

During the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Sicily came under the rule of German and Norse tribes, first the Vandals and then the Ostrogoths. But as the Roman Empire reorganized itself in Constantinople, Byzantine Greeks returned to Sicily, turning it, for a short time, into the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire at Syracuse in 663.

And then came the Arabs. After defeating the Byzantine Greeks in 827, immigrants from all over the Muslim world settled and intermarried with the Sicilians. Palermo became the second-largest city in the world after Constantinople.

The Norman Conquest, begun in 1061, took ten years, but resulted in a golden age for the island under Kings Roger I and Roger II, until about 1200 when the female heir to the throne married a Hohenstaufen and the island came under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. Under the Normans, Christians, Muslims, Byzantines, and everyone else got along splendidly, imparting to the island its unique Arab-Norman-Byzantine architectural style.

You’d think that with such a mixture of peoples Sicilians might resemble Polynesians. They don’t. They range from white to swarthy (with a few black Africans — recent arrivals — mostly from Nigeria and Ghana), with blonde, red, brown, and black hair. The only physical trait they all seem to share is a so-called Roman nose — large, protruding and sometimes sporting a hump a third of the way down the bridge.

Around Sicily in Low Gear

Sicily is at the same latitude as Salt Lake City. Tina and I chose February for our trip because we’re cheap, hate crowds, and love to bike in the cold and rain. In Milazzo we paid €40 per night for a fully furnished apartment, smack dab in the center of town. We took advantage of the deal and spent two nights there. But not just for that.

Milazzo, a city on a spectacular peninsula on the northeast of the island, is charming, clean, and delightful, with a lively passeggiata, or evening promenade, where seemingly the entire town dresses up and walks the sidewalks, streets, and waterfront, visiting, tippling, eating gelato, marzipan, biscotti, cannoli, and any of the dozens of sweets and pastries that Sicilians love. This pre-Lenten time being Carnevale, the children were outfitted in elaborate costumes.

Inhabited since prehistoric times, the town is dominated by a massive hilltop fortress built, in successive enlargements, by the Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, and Spanish. We were the only visitors to the fort. At one time it had held captured prisoners in its Spanish enclave. Inside, to our complete incredulity, there hung the purported skeleton of an English soldier inside “the coffin,” one of the most prevalent torture and execution methods, often seen invarious movies set in medieval Europe.The victimswerestripped naked andplaced inside a metal cage, roughly made in the shape of the human body.The cage wasthenhung from a tree, gallows,or city walls until the victim died of dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia. Birds and bugs ate the bones clean. No ropes or barriers separated this grisly exhibition from the fort’s visitors. Tina shook the Englishman’s phalanges reverently, not believing she could do so and thereby reach into the past, perhaps even into the poor man’s soul, so easily, spontaneously, and without a mediative ritual.

Was it real? The interpretive sign implied so. The bones were real enough, though the teeth and ribs were reconstructions, with the rib cage ligaments being some sort of plastic; the skeleton was held together with metal clips, as real skeletons usually are. Was it the Englishman’s actual bones, or a skeleton donated for the purpose of illustrating what had happened? Who knows?

 

Nino, the only person we met there, stopped to engage us. An elderly, scholarly gentleman with a wide Van Dyke sans mustache, he introduced himself as the resident historian. When I told him I was an American archaeologist, he invited us into his offices and collection of goodies: theater masks from the Arab period, erasable wax writing tablets from the Roman occupation, authentically-made replicas of trinacrias throughout the ages. The trinacria is the 3-legged symbol of Sicily, with a Gorgon’s head at the center. It graces the center of the Sicilian flag. Go ahead and Google it. Irrespective of what you’ll find there, Nino convincingly demonstrated its Celtic and Indian roots.

Daytime temperatures hovered in the low 50s; rain was not infrequent, though never torrential. We were aiming for 50 kilometers per day, average, including rest and tourist days, for the entire 1,123 km circumference. Traveling across or around a country by bike is to experience the country mano a mano, so to speak, with all its smells, sounds, and sights in slow motion — not to mention the many personal interactions that are inevitable in low gear.

The island is mountainous; we trained hard for two months before the trip, and it paid off, though the roads we chose — secondary, mostly — were expertly engineered for grade. Our objective was to hug the coast all the way around, counterclockwise. At one point, a landslide had obliterated a portion of the via nazionale upon which we were riding. The detour took us up into the mountains on a tertiary road. It was so steep that Tina and I had to push each loaded bike up with both of us pushing the handlebars. On the other hand, the freeways were engineering and construction marvels. One expressway girdles the island, cutting across peninsulas and corners, sometimes receding quite some distance from the coast. It is almost perfectly flat, achieving this miracle with long tunnels and impressively long and tall bridges.

Our biggest concerns were traffic and the problem of booking our lodgings, usually B&Bs or apartments. Many places were closed for the season; those that weren’t almost always presented a language problem. We preferred apartments. Sicilian restaurants don’t open until 8 pm and seldom serve before 9 pm — an impossible eating schedule for all-day bikers accustomed to eating dinner between 5 and 6 pm and getting an early start the next day. But we still sampled some of Sicily’s unique dishes. Here are two of them (don’t say Liberty has never published recipes):

Gnocchi

  • Potato and rice flour marbles
  • Crumbled Italian sausage
  • Chopped almonds
  • Pistachio paté — finely ground pistachios in extra virgin olive oil (pistachio butter?)
  • Garlic
  • Dry white wine
  • Garnish with halved cherry tomatoes and fresh mint

Linguine

  • Ground lamb and ground pork in equal proportions
  • Chopped pistachios
  • Almond paté — finely ground almonds in extra virgin olive oil (almond butter? sans sugar!)
  • Garlic
  • Dry white wine
  • Diced red bell peppers or pimentos
  • Serve with Sicilian Nero d’Avola wine (or blood-red orange juice)

Keep Calm and Pedal On

At Marsala, the town that invented its eponymous sweet wine, we gawked in wonder at the narrow medieval streets paved in marble. Feeling a bit lost, I asked a traffic carabinieri for directions.

Italian traffic cops are very friendly. They’re armed with ridiculous ping-pong paddles with a red circle in the middle, which are holstered in their boot cuffs when not deployed as badges of authority. They do not inspire or command respect. Whenever they wave that silly paddle I’m reminded of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail insisting he’s still effective in spite of his missing arms and legs. These cops are seldom seen except at accident sites and infrequent radar speed traps.

We’d been warned about Italian traffic being a heavy-metal roller derby without rules. In truth, Sicilian traffic was complete anarchy, with cars breaking every traffic rule imaginable, from speeding and running stop signs and traffic lights to double and triple (and even sidewalk) parking to driving backwards down one-way streets and up and down pedestrian-only venues — anything to get an advantage. Most drivers were talking on the phone, texting, eating, gesticulating, and even drinking. Many gas stations included bars! Some drivers drove with their heads out the window while smoking so as not to smoke up the car.

Italian traffic cops are very friendly. They do not inspire or command respect.

But the anarchy, to no libertarian’s surprise, works. Without adherence to rules, every driver is 100% aware of his environment and expects the unexpected at any time. Drivers are also very polite and have quick reaction responses. It’s as if every Sicilian driver had graduated from the Bob Bondurant School of high performance driving. It’s no exaggeration to say that we saw more driving schools in Sicily than we’ve seen anywhere else — by far.

Right of way is not determined by rules (though they do exist) but rather on a first-come basis. It takes nerve as a pedestrian, biker, or even car to gingerly nose out into traffic without the right of way. In the US, cars would honk, drivers flip the finger, and accidents ensue. In Sicily, traffic politely accommodates you.

Essential to this driving environment is the Italian car horn. Mastering its grammar is nearly as difficult as mastering tones in Mandarin. There are special toots and combinations of toots for nearly any situation, but almost none of them aggressive or panicky. When approaching from behind, vehicles would warn us — at a discreet distance — of their approach with a distinctive honk, never varying and never startling. It was different from a greeting honk, which also varied according to whether the greeted person was in a vehicle or on foot, a man or a woman. There were distinctive tootles for dogs, either as warnings or greetings. The claxon language of Sicily is so well developed and intuitive that we identified one honk as a question, “What are you going to do?”, with the anticipated accompaniment of a hand gesture. Traffic jams were not advertised by blasts and blares; they were considered unavoidable aspects of driving in congested conditions.

We couldn’t believe Italian bikers, all dressed identically in the latest biking gear, packed tightly together like a school of minnows, taking up an entire lane, oblivious to vehicles and racing at top speed on wheels skinny as dental floss. They all waved at us and shouted ciao! Even biking pairs would ride side by side taking up an entire lane, ignoring traffic. We never quite adopted that custom, nearly always riding in single file. But traffic would always treat bikes as full-fledged vehicles, passing only when appropriate and seldom crowding them.

One large group stopped to engage us. We’d noticed that no biking group ever included a female, so I asked, “Don’t Italian women ride bikes?” One fellow piped up that the women were home cooking. Everyone laughed.

Greeks, Fascists, Old and New Gods

Sicily’s most impressive ruins are its Greek temples and theaters. The one in Agrigento is where Aeschylus directed and presented his tragedies. It and the one in Taormina are still used annually for Greek play festivals. Most are well preserved and protected yet totally accessible to the public, unlike Stonehenge, which, understandably, is now cordoned off. The Temple of Concordia (440 BC) in the Valle dei Templi is the largest and best-preserved Doric temple in Sicily, and one of the best-preserved Greek temples anywhere.It was converted into a Christian basilica in the 6th century and dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul by the bishop of Agrigento.

Roman ruins are fewer. Their surviving mosaics are protected and cordoned off. Many Arab mosques, on the other hand, were converted into Christian churches, yet retained much of their Moslem flavor.

But it was the Fascist and German pillboxes along the south coast and edging up the west and east coasts that really struck a nerve. There were many, without signs or fences; they were simply abandoned, ignored, and often graffitied. One, outside of Messina, had been incorporated within the waterfront promenade and painted colorfully. The pillboxes recalled for us Tina’s uncle Bernie, who had participated in the US invasion of North Africa and then in the invasion of Sicily. Its south coast is invasion-friendly, with sandy beaches and a level hinterland. Approaching Gela, an old Greek city with a large, decommissioned petroleum refinery on its outskirts, we tried to put ourselves in Bernie’s boots. It was the first Sicilian city liberated by the Allies.

We pedaled across to Syracusa, looking forward to another rest and tourist day in Ortygia, Syracusa’s peninsular core and the nexus of its ancient Greek settlement. Right downtown, in the center, stand the remains of a temple to Apollo. The old gods still rule! Some of the narrow medieval streets can’t accommodate a classic Fiat 500, a smart car or, much less, a Mini.

Wending our way up the east coast, we were distracted by a road closure and detour that set us riding in circles. Finally — as in the old saying about “when in . . . do as . . .” — we cut through the closure, rode against traffic, and found a quiet spot for lunch. Suddenly, faintly visible in the distance but nearly taking up the entire horizon and the hazy sky above, loomed Mt. Aetna. At nearly 11,000 feet, rising right out of the water, it is an overwhelming sight, covered in snow and spewing smoke. Our plans to climb it came to naught: this winter’s snowpack had been exceptionally heavy, and all the approach roads were still blocked.

Just as well — soon after, Vulcan vented, spitting hot ash and lava onto the snowpack and causing spectacular explosions. Part of Aetna’s ski resort was destroyed. This is nothing new: 22 seismic stations monitor volcanic activity to defend Catania, the city at the mountain’s foot, and the surrounding towns. Signs along the road prohibit bikes, pedestrians, and motorbikes during eruptions.

Soon we hit the Riviera dei Ciclopi, where towering hunks of lava rise out of the sea. According to legend, these were thrown by the blinded Cyclops, Polyphemus, in a desperate attempt to stop Odysseus from escaping. One of the bigger blobs, La Rocca di Aci Castello, emerges from an underwater fissure and upholds a 13th-century black Norman castle built on an earlier Arab fortification. Inside, a small museum displays a bizarre collection of prehistoric skulls. From here on up and all across the north shore of Sicily, Norman lookout towers dotted high coastal salients, medieval parodies of the WWII pillboxes along the south coast.

Two days after Taormina we spotted the Calabrian coast, Italy’s boot toe. At the city of Messina, the Straits of Messina are only 1.9 miles wide at their narrowest, but plans for a cross-strait bridge have been put on hold in consideration of the prevalence of earthquakes and the strong currents. Appropriately, a huge and impressive statue of Neptune fronts city hall.

Turning the bird beak’s northeast corner of the island, we entered the mountainous north coast, where we were blessed by a constant tail wind. Cefalù, where we laid over for two days, is a compact medieval fishing town, nestling below the 1,000-foot La Rocca, a sheer-sided limestone mountain upon which previous embodiments of the town were built. Only one line of weakness provides an approach to the top — the endless steps that lead to the old fortifications. Imagine a fully kitted-up medieval soldier, laboring under a barrage of rocks, arrows, and hot oil, scaling his way up the then-stairless acclivity that today (with steps) takes a good half hour to negotiate.

The Moslems conquered the town from the Byzantines in 858, after a long siege. After another long siege, the Normans, under King Roger I, captured the city in 1063. To celebrate his victory, Roger commissioned what is regarded as Sicily’s finest mosaic, Christ Pantocrator, in the apsis of the cupola.

Heading back to Palermo we stopped at the old Greek city of Himera, supposedly one of Hercules’ (or Herakles’) early haunts. Little remains of the once-important and sprawling city-state. For nearly a century Carthage tried to capture the place, and to fend off the attackers — initially 300,000 strong, it is said — Himera had to cede its independence to Gelon, ruler of Syracuse. In 409 BC, Hannibal finally conquered it and razed it.

As we approached Palermo we were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we were energized by our sense of accomplishment and anticipation of celebration. On the other, we dreaded navigating Palermo’s choked and complicated streets — both good reasons to spend a day playing tourist. But bike travel in congested medieval cities is ideal. Not having to negotiate one-way, six-foot wide streets in a car or find parking is a tremendous advantage.

Palermo holds many treasures. Palazzi of past nobility illustrated the fact that, In spite of the long roster of foreign rulers, it was only through the indigenous aristocracy — which, being Sicilian, commanded more allegiance than the actual rulers — that each conqueror was able to exert any control over the island. The Spanish, first as Aragonese and then as subjects of a unified Spain, ruled Sicily for about 500 years, deeply influencing the Sicilian dialect — a boon to my lack of Italian and knowledge of Spanish. But they also brought the hated Inquisition, which targeted the landed gentry, the rich, and the educated in order to try to break their informal control of the island.

Our tour guide (required) through the dungeons of the Inquisition preserved an extraordinary chronicle that required interpretation: the prisoners’ graffiti. Some were simple groupings of four vertical lines with a diagonal slash — tallies of days. Others were elaborate paintings, hiding subtle anti-Spanish messages. One was a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion with the Roman soldiers outfitted as Spaniards. Another was the Nicene Creed in English.

Interrogation, always under torture, was called “a conversation with God.” No prisoner was ever released except for forced labor. All were executed, most of them burnt at the stake. One prisoner managed to kill an Inquisitor, a unique event that ended our tour on a righteously vengeful note. The prisoner’s revenge, for all the outrage it caused, actually prolonged the poor man’s life; the only punishment the prelates could muster was to delay his death and prolong his torture. But demands that the Inquisitor be canonized came to naught.

Sicily has subsequently managed to separate church and state, for the most part, although an actual, physical bridge still exists. Palermo’s cathedral and parliament are connected by two arches. Vaguely reminiscent of the Palace of Westminster, the buildings are a striking example of the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. Inside the cathedral we visited the tombs of the Norman kings, still revered as having presided over a Sicilian golden age.

Walking along the waterfront on our last evening in Sicily, we stood at the seaside railing and gazed out over the Mediterranean, reflecting on a wonderful trip. A woman across the street behind us, cleaning her house, was taken by the sight and snapped our picture with her phone, out the open window. As we walked away she motioned us over. She showed us the photo and indicated that she wanted to send it to us, explaining in Italian that she was “a romantic” and the sight of us touched a chord.

Arrivederci!




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Bound for Destruction on the Queen Mary

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During the last weekend in April I attended the second annual meeting of StokerCon.

Before you ask what StokerCon may be, I have to confess that I didn’t “attend” in the sense of “pay to attend” or “sit through any of the sessions.” I attended only as a person who suddenly discovered that StokerCon was going on all around him.

It began when my friend and I checked into our cabin on the liner Queen Mary — the Queen Mary that has, since 1967, been tied to a dock in Long Beach, California. It’s a fascinating vessel, and the idea that you can rent a room on it is marvelous in itself. But my subject is not the QM. It’s the mob of people in black t-shirts and black and red badges that we encountered in the ship’s lobbies and corridors, a crowd that was growing when we arrived on Thursday, swarmed on Friday, and did not depart until late Sunday afternoon.

Contemplating the convention’s logo, I looked at my friend with a wild surmise.

You don’t pay much to attend a StokerCon — you can get by with as little as $99 for (early) registration and, I think, $119 a night for your room — and you evidently get your money’s worth. There are lectures, receptions, product displays, and constant opportunities to meet and mingle with like-minded people. The whole ship was involved in the life of the group.

But what, you insist on asking, is StokerCon?

My friend and I had various ideas about that. Was there a railway union that still called itself the Stokers, just as the Teamsters still call themselves the Teamsters? Was this a convention designed not for people who prepare food but for people who stoke up on it? (A lot of the attendees were, indeed, very hefty.) Or were we meeting the constant players of some videogame we’d never heard of?

At last came the light. Contemplating the convention’s logo — a stylized, perhaps intentionally spooky, version of a house or castle — I looked at my friend with a wild surmise. The Con got its name from a man named Stoker — Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. The Con was about horror fiction.

I was right. According to itself (and I have no reason to disagree) “StokerCon is the annual convention of The Horror Writers Association (HWA), the premier organization of writers and publishers of horror and dark fantasy.”

In addition to sessions on such topics as “The Nuts and Bolts of Publishing Your Own Comic,” “Unraveling the Dark, Mysterious, Twisted World of Online Marketing,” and ”How to Write Awesome Dialog,” StokerCon offered parties, book sales even larger than those at libertarian conventions, and readings by a ton of authors (none of them known to my friend or me). All about the production of Horror. And all proof that Adam Smith was right about the division of labor.

One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright.

The crowd was evenly split, male-female, with all ethnicities represented; and there were fair numbers of black women, though for some reason no black men (as far as we could see). Plenty of tattoos and strange millennial hair, but a good representation of retired people and folks who looked like librarians. In fact, there was a strong emphasis on libraries and librarians throughout. A few Stokers came dressed as stock horror characters — Death with a Scythe was my favorite — but I don’t think they kept it up during the entire event; even Death took a holiday. Looking for some common feature of the group, my friend said “strident voices,” and it was true that many, including librarians, had never mastered the indoor range of decibels. But that’s how we learned a lot, without paying any cash.

One thing we learned is that “universities” throughout the English-speaking world are cashing in on the evidently widespread desire to write horror fiction. If you want to do that, you will have no trouble finding classes, evening classes, summer classes, and online classes in the art of scaring people. One thing we did not learn was how many students have figured out how to make money from their education in fright. Clearly, few of the people who shipped on the Queen Mary that weekend were burdened with extra funds; I’d put the average annual income at $55K, and the median income from literary sources at a straight $55. And from one point of view, that’s a good thing, because the vast majority of genre fiction — detective, romance, western, horror, whatever — is and always has been junk. As a matter of fact, most fiction has always been junk. The more Stokers there are — the more writers there are — the more junk is going to be produced.

But here’s the thing. The feature of this group that was even more common than strident voices — the feature that was, indeed, universal — turned out to be happiness. Moods ranged from smiling contentment to shrieking hilarity, but there were no unhappy ghouls or goblins.

A good time was had by all, except people like my friend and me, who were always getting trapped in some public space with mobs of intrusively cheerful people. Yet when Sunday night rolled around, and we were sitting in the bar by ourselves, we sort of missed the Stokers. They didn’t leave us desolate, but they left us with a little less to talk about. A little less to have fun with. They were . . . something. They were not nothing. As much as I dislike the fact that everyone in America now describes himself as a member of some “community,” these people had actually created a community for themselves, and they were enjoying it, and they were doing no damage to other people (beyond the occasional shattered eardrum). And if that isn’t good for America, I don’t know what is.




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