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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Responsive Government

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Libertarians are of two minds about government.

To some, the state is a system of entrenched powers and interests unwilling to yield a particle of authority. Evidence: even the president can’t make any significant change in the power structure.

To others, the state is a vast assemblage of freeloaders and influence peddlers, perfectly willing to assimilate anyone or anything — even you or me — because it is confident in its ability to survive and grow, no matter what. Evidence: the 535 members of Congress, living proof that anyone can become part of the state.

The mayor tearfully apologized, claiming that he knew nothing of the important honor granted by his office.

The first theory pictures government as an endless web of armed DMVs, the second as an endless series of doors that can be accessed, eventually, by anybody. If even a Maxine Waters or a Mitch McConnell knocks on enough of those doors, eventually one of them will open. There are policemen in the state of California who get paid $550,000 a year. They found a door that opened.

The city of Cincinnati has provided fresh evidence for the second theory. It appears that if you ask the people in the mayor’s office, they will give you a day, a special day, just for you, or for anyone you know, no matter who you or either of you may be.

In 2015, a police officer named Sonny Kim was ambushed and killed on the streets of Cincinnati by a man named Trepierre Hummons, who was then killed. This year, Hummons’ father contacted the city asking that a day be set aside to honor his son. His intention, it is reported, was “to raise awareness of child abuse and mental illness” — two things that something called the Trepierre Foundation — a GoFundMe venue — exists to fight. In any event, the father’s intention was soon honored, and the city declared June 1 “Tre Day” in honor of the cop killer, whose “sacrifice,” the proclamation said, would “save the lives of children for generations to come.”

If you ask the people in the Cincinnati mayor’s office, they will give you a day, a special day, just for you, or for anyone you know.

This action finally leaked into the knowledge of someone outside the mayor’s office, and protests were lodged. “Tre Day” was ousted from the calendar, and the mayor tearfully apologized, claiming that he knew nothing of the important honor granted by his office, which allegedly did not recognize the distinctive name of the person it was honoring. So much for Tre Day. But the awful extent of government is indicated by the fact that it does millions of things like this without its actions even being noticed.

And let me tell you, Tiw, Woden, Thor, Freya, and Saturn are really pissed off.




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Hi. I’m Me. Where’s My Prize?

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I heard the bad news on the radio, but the press confirmed it: David Letterman has been selected to receive something called the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The award won’t be presented until October 22, but to satisfy a world breathlessly awaiting news about this coveted prize, the media were activated early. Way early. Well, bad news usually arrives with haste.

Here’s part of the announcement as it appeared in the Washington Post. Have towels ready, because this is a gush:

David Letterman, who reinvented late-night television with his irreverent and distinctly original comic sensibility, will receive the Kennedy Center’s 2017 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Letterman, 70, will be honored with the 20th-annual prize at a gala performance Oct. 22. The event will be televised later nationally. [I take that as a threat.] The Twain, considered the most prestigious honor in the world of comedy, will be awarded to Letterman five years after he was made a Kennedy Center Honoree.

“Reinvented”? “Irreverent?” “Sensibility?” You gotta be kiddin’. The guy isn’t even funny. Tell me one funny thing he’s ever said. See! You can’t.

And why drag Mark Twain into it? I don’t especially like Twain. Some of his stuff is good; lots of it is simply tiresome (and there is lots and lots of it). He’s seldom funny, and never so seldom as when he insists on telling you that this is what he’s being. But some of his aphorisms are memorable: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And as I was taught — I believe by a professor with the unusual name of Blake Nevius — Twain actually did “reinvent” something. Before Twain, America’s professional humorists made money by laughing at people who were socially inferior to them. Twain made money by laughing with people whom he treated as social equals. As Nevius put it, “unlike the others, he wasn’t above his material.”

I don’t know when the mania for awards hit this country, but it’s a sign of cultural degeneration if ever there was one.

The really horrible thing, however, is the idea of somebody deciding to give an award for American humor at a “gala” at which people in tuxedos will schmooze and chuckle, presumably about how much better they are than people without tuxedos. There are far too many awards, anyway — and for humor? Gimme a break. Anybody with a sense of humor has already gotten the point of the penultimate scene of The Wizard of Oz, the awards-giving scene. The point is that awards are silly and unnecessary and unconsciously funny. If you have the qualities for which an award is given, you should probably laugh at the very idea of an award. If you don’t have those qualities — well, do you think that giving a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will inspire some wannabe comic to become the next (ugh) David Letterman? It won’t happen. Such awards have no purpose — no legitimate purpose, anyhow.

I don’t know when the mania for awards hit this country, but it’s a sign of cultural degeneration if ever there was one. I’m picturing a mob of creepy-looking guys in monkey suits who, contrary to all evidence, think they’re cool, talking about how funny David is, and never having a clue that they are the funny ones. Well, they, and the president, and Congress — all of whom should be getting an award, if you’re giving out awards for laughs.




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Cashless and Thoughtless

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There has been a lot of push from international organizations to make poor societies around the world copy Western institutions, and recently to go cashless. Blind to differences in cultures, these international organizations have hugely over-estimated the organizational capabilities of people in the emerging markets — in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Anyone who has spent a sensible amount of time in emerging markets — not in five-star settings but as a normal person — knows that in these countries, an organization of two people often has one person too many. It is also evident that the two tends to expand into dozens, hundreds, and thousands, either because of the local desire to subsidize more people or because of the need to instigate a Western-style bureaucracy to control the whole thing.

Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

In these culturally very different markets, companies and institutions — Western concepts, which do not transplant well without the underlying European culture and values — can never stay nimble. To maintain control, internal bureaucracies must grow to provide checks and balances, because workers fail in independent thinking, work ethics, honesty, and cooperation. Creativity stays conspicuous by its absence.

Despite seemingly low labor costs — as low as a couple of dollars a day in wages — the costs of keeping such organizations together grows exponentially with size. Growing bureaucracies require additional checks and balances. Without the cleaning mechanism of European values and the control systems they provide, these organizations invariably accumulate dead mass, which keeps growing cancerously until they crumble under their own weight. Organizations that do not have constant blood transfusions and external subsidies tend to disintegrate rather rapidly. The price of keeping them together is extremely high.

In a climate already characterized by political correctness, a certain wisdom that Europeans had accumulated about the colonized world had evaporated by the time the USSR era ended in the late 1980s. Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

German companies moved their factories to Eastern Europe, a region of relative cultural closeness to Germany. But many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite. All kinds of configurations of Western corporate investment in emerging markets were tried, with similar results.

The problem is that these emerging markets’ societies are tribal. In such cultures you need the glue of violence, subsidies, and massive bureaucracies to keep organizations in place. The experiments of the past 500 years with colonization and Western education show that it is not easy — when it is even possible — to wean societies away from tribalism. Bigger and bigger organizations were put in place in emerging markets, but they tended to remain poor and in strife. The intervention of Western economic methods created an unnatural gap between the poor and an entrenched elite, rendered more entrenched by the possession of whatever new wealth was produced.

Many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite.

There is only one solution: keep organizations in these emerging markets as small as possible, remembering that tribal instincts ironically propel them to make their organizations big. Never subsidize big organizations, for if you do, besides providing services that add value you create operations that are a massive drag on the economy, full of endeavors that consume wealth instead of producing it.

This brings us to the current drive to go cashless.

India has recently attempted to reduce the use of cash, ostensibly to reduce corruption but actually to further centralize the economy by creating a medium of exchange that the government can constantly monitor. Naturally, it is also creating a national ID card system. Both of these are in direct conflict with what India should do as a tribal, medieval society.

Let’s consider the sequence of steps required to operate an online bank account in India.

Start with slow internet connections and frequent interruptions in electricity. Add extremely unwieldy websites, websites that do not open properly. My browser often gets hung up on these sites. My password has a limited validity and must be renewed regularly by using the old password and a one-time password sent to my mobile phone; and a lot goes wrong during this “simple” process. Once inside the account, however, I may need another one-time password and an additional transaction password to complete my business.

Most people actually walk down to their bank branch to do the so-called online transaction — a clear instance of the fact that trying to modernize any system beyond its natural capacity in a tribal society increases the costs and makes it more difficult. This is the persistent irony of modernization.

My Indian banks charge me fees and commissions I never agreed on. They then top it up with taxes on “services” provided. Bank statements are ridden with so many charges that only the rare person has time or patience to sort them out, particularly when the banks are crowded, and getting someone to talk to you on the phone is extremely difficult. When you get through to an agent, he usually knows nothing.

The frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, the reduction of cash has added significantly to the burden.

It gets worse, especially if you are the so-called common man. I know my way around pretty well, but I frequently get stuck. And here is a country where 25% of the population is officially illiterate and where engineers and doctors choose to apply for jobs as janitors, mostly because their degrees are no more than paper. It is a country where a large proportion of those who claim to be literate struggle to sign their own names, let alone show themselves capable of reading a sentence. Imagine how they would deal with forced digitalization of the currency system. This will end in disaster.

Even now, in the last six months that India has been trying to reduce the usage of cash, the frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, it has added significantly to the burden.

Notably, however, none of this means that people have gone against the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. He is winning election after election, and most people simply love him. When not facing banking problems in real time, they are actively in support of Modi’s attempt to go cashless. One must remind himself that this is a tribal, irrational society. People often cannot connect simple dots that are right in front of them; not even the so-called educated ones can do that. They tend to do exactly more of what created the original problem, which in this case is irrational authority.

Any tribal society contains the impetus to make bigger, and more complex systems of authority. Tribal people want nannies. They feel secure in big structures, despite the fact that such structures actually make them less safe. Tribal people demand free stuff, without any feeling of gratitude to any real source of wealth. Governments meet that emotional need, while doing little else for their subjects.

Any rational leader would make an aggressive attempt to counter a tribal society’s willingness to increase the sizes of its institutions. But tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

The IMF and the World Bank think that these emerging markets need better institutions. They think these countries need to reduce corruption, which is one of the reasons for the push towards going cashless. Locals in these countries agree. The irony is that these locals haven’t a clue about what corruption means — their tribal worldview means that they do not see corruption from a moral perspective. They merely look at the need to end corruption as a tool of expediency to improve their personal lives. They may think that everyone should stop asking for bribes, but they do not include themselves individually in that equation. Any sane, non-tribal person can see that this does not add up.

Tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

Contrary to the view of many libertarians, even when privatization does happen, there can only be limited improvements. Indian companies — for they have tribal people as ingredients — are instinctively dishonest. They lack a work ethic and, unconstrained by morals, they rampantly abuse their clients. For example, I used an online Indian travel agency to buy an international ticket. After tens of attempts the money left my bank account — but I never got my ticket. The company said I never paid. No one knows whether it was the bank or the agent that was at fault. Eventually the agent refunded my money to the bank, but then the bank blocked that money. I had to run around the bank, which could not trace that blocked money. I shouted, screamed, and threatened, but in this entangled mess, I don’t really know who was the culprit. I do know that big organizations and forced-from-the-top digital money simply do not work.

Given the low-trust culture, Indians prefer immediate exchange of goods for money and vice versa. If you pay for a later delivery, you undertake huge risks that your goods might never arrive, and if they do arrive it is not unlikely that you might receive substandard goods. If you sell goods for payment at a later date, your money might never come. No wonder 95% of Indian consumer transactions happen in cash, with goods exchanging hands exactly at the same time that cash is paid.

India’s attempts to go cashless will end in a disaster. This will become obvious in a few months, not years. But India is merely an example. The situation with most of the emerging markets is exactly the same (with China, perhaps, as the only exception).

The lesson is that poor countries are poor for a reason, despite all kinds of tools of technology — particularly the internet — that are available to make their economies rapidly converge with that of the West. Western institutions worked in the ex-colonies as long as Europeans ran their institutions. With Europeans long gone and European values no longer underpinning them, the institutions have increasingly become hollow structures — what one sees everywhere in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, with the exception of a few small countries. An attempt to go cashless is a tribal attempt to centralize, exactly when their institutions, including the institution of the nation-state, another European import, are imploding.




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Speech Action

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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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Report from the Land of Snowflakes

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For the last decade my hometown has held something called the “Avenue of Roses Parade.” This is a big deal parade kitted out with marching bands and floats and fire trucks and Boy Scouts and groups of people in all sorts of foreign clothes doing traditional dances, and returned Peace Corps volunteers carrying flags from the countries they served in, and open-top cars with prettily-dressed high school queens from around the state waving mechanical waves, and more floats, and pickup trucks, and rodeo queens on fancy horses, all making their boisterous way along a highly traveled thoroughfare that runs through a mostly immigrant part of town. But not this year. This year the rumor got around that the Group in Position 67 might be sneaking Republicans into the parade.

As everybody in Portland, Oregon, knows, immigrant communities are the exclusive preserve of Democrats. Something had to be done and something was done. Somebody . . . some anonymous snowflake of a somebody who was too scared to sign his name . . . fired off an email to the parade committee announcing that if the committee wasn’t prepared to kick the Republicans out of the parade, and do it now, shadowy groups of masked banditos would, to use the email’s own words, “rush into the parade into the middle and drag and push those people out.”

The email made national news. Here’s part of it:

Their Trump flags, their red MAGA hats and their hate group badges are all intended to normalize support for an orange man who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate, racism and prejudice against our Muslim, Latinx, Black and Native neighbors. They will attempt to march from the Eastport Plaza to Yamhill, but nazis will not march through our city.

If you missed that, one reason these protesters cite as justification for stopping Republicans on a parade route is that they will otherwise “normalize support” for a sitting president.

I didn’t say that last part about normalizing support for a sitting president; Conor Friedersdorfsaid it in the in the Atlantic so ha! all you Lefty Apologists, it’s true.

This year the rumor got around that the Group in Position 67 might be sneaking Republicans into the parade.

There are a lot of possible reactions to a threatening email. The city could, for example, have inquired into who sent the thing. They could have arranged for police protection. They could have applied to the state for military protection. What they did was dither. “Police? Well, police . . . You know all that bad press the city got when it didn’t do something about stopping the rioters back after the elections . . . Well, we don’t need to get our police mixed up in something like that again.”

Faced with this lack of well, anything, from the people whose job it is to protect the rest of us from criminal assault, the parade committee could have, I don’t know, ignored the whole thing as just one of those things. I think that’s the way I would have handled it. Or bused in beefy rancher Republicans from outlying districts. Or made it known that they’d consulted their mailing list of people with concealed carry permits. Or invited Bikers for Trump to come ride in Position 66 1/2. Instead, they turned just as snowflakey as everybody else and cancelled the whole soiree less than 48 hours before it was supposed to kick off.

At which the Republicans decided to go it alone. “If you won’t have a parade with Republicans,” the Republicans said, ”then Republicans will have a parade without you,” and announced they’d be holding a March for Free Speech along the very same parade route at the very same time the Parade of Roses should have taken place.

The only red baseball cap I could find turned out to have a green pentangle on it, which is the flag of Morocco where I used to live, and gold Arabic script.

Now I’d missed out on the whole marching-chanting-singing experience back in the Sixties on account of being otherwise engaged defending the people who were doing the marching from whatever it was the Democrats-in-Charge-of-Things thought marching-chanting-singing Americans needed defending from in Southeast Asia. So, when I got wind of a Republican Civil Rights march, that was it. My Saturday morning was scheduled.

I dug around in the closet for a red baseball cap. I wasn’t sure what a MAGA hat was but, I was guessing, it would be red and I wanted to look the part. The only red baseball cap I could find turned out to have a green pentangle on it, which is the flag of Morocco where I used to live, and gold Arabic script which, if you read against the grain and know Arabic, spells out “Morocco.” Maybe, it occurs to me as I’m writing this, MAGA has something to do with Make America Great Again. Could be. I’m just speculating here.

Then I spent more time than I’d expected to spend rummaging in drawers and jewelry boxes and the backs of shelves behind books trying to locate the ribbon I’d acquired when the Southeast Asia thing didn’t work out as planned. I figured I’d plant myself at the head of the parade and wanted to look my best.

When I arrived at the park where the march was to form up, there was a green chain-link fence wrapped around something called a turf court. I have no idea what a turf court does during the week but that morning it was a place to cordon off the Freedom of Speech marchers from the terrorists outside. Generally you could recognize the terrorists because they wore masks and dressed in Hallowe’en costumes. The Free Speech people were dressed like people — all sorts of people, including some who might well have been Bikers for Trump in other parts of their lives.

This was Portland. There aren’t that many black people of any sort around and those who could dance had better things to do with their weekends.

A few of the guys inside the fence made the effort to go outside and actually talk to the people outside the fence but, mostly, the people outside weren’t interested. One guy was cynical about being approached. “You won’t let us talk,” he said.

“Sure we will,” the Freedom of Speech guy said.

“Naw,” Cynical Guy said.

“Really. I mean it. We’re on your team about free speech. You should be marching with us.”

Cynical Guy hadn’t been expecting that and started backing away. No way he could march for free speech, not with Republicans there.

One guy who most likely wasn’t a Republican had helped organize the parade. He was tall, late twenties, and the best-dressed person on the scene, including the mayor when he whizzed by. He was wearing neatly-pressed black pants, shiny shoes, a crisp white shirt tastefully accented with a bowtie, and a floor-length American flag draped over his shoulders like Superman, if Truth, Justice, and the American Way had involved accessorizing with Old Glory. He told me he was a lifelong radical who thought free speech was important. Like most Lefties he didn’t have a sense of humor about being called out as a racist.

“They keep tellin’ me white men can’t dance,” he said. “Well I can dance with the best of them. Come on,” he yelled through the fence. “Let’s have a dance marathon. Right here. You scared to dance with me?” But this was Portland. There aren’t that many black people of any sort around and those who could dance had better things to do with their weekends than get mixed up in the political posturings of cosseted white kids.

Professor Guy had the lung capacity of a sperm whale and he kept going for another five minutes with nobody listening at all.

One guy who might have been a Biker for Trump — he was in his fifties, had a graying biker ponytail, biker boots, biker chains, and a faded Harley-Davison jacket — was standing under a tree trying to talk to a tall, professorial-looking guy. The professor guy was spouting a word salad of Lefty hate speech at the biker, who listened patiently until Professorial Guy started to turn blue from lack of air and had to pause for breath. Biker Guy seen his opportunity and he took it, and said in a voice as calm as an airline pilot announcing he was switching off the seatbelt sign, “You might want to check on the definition of fascist before you go accusing people of that.”

Professorial Guy was not impressed and, having found his second wind, ignored the thing about finding out what he was talking about, and started up again. The word salad sprouted into a hedge dense enough to protect his thoughts from any possibility of trespass, then blossomed into an entire Normandy hedgerow a Sherman tank couldn’t have punched its way through. A long time later he had to breathe again and the biker got a second chance. “Seriously, Brother. Try Googling “Fascist’.” But that didn’t cut any more mustard than the first time, and Professorial Guy picked up where he’d left off and set out from there. Three or four minutes later Biker Guy got bored and wandered away but even that didn’t deter the words from spewing out. That Professor Guy had the lung capacity of a sperm whale and he kept going for another five minutes with nobody listening at all.

Somewhere along in there the mayor came by, but his heart wasn’t in it. He cut across a corner of the park at race-walk speed, cordoned off by bodyguards straining to keep up, shook hands with the half-a-dozen cops formed up in a conga line to protect him from whatever it was he needed protecting from, and, without breaking stride, was out of there. A photo op, somebody speculated. A testament to 21st-century technology, I thought. In the absence of modern, high speed photography Hizzonor wouldn’t have had any reason to be there.

Inside the turf court there were a lot of flags, some of them American, some Trumpian. Outside there were juggling and noisemakers, some of them high-powered mechanical bullhorns set on SCREEEECH to drown out the guy inside who was telling us marchers that we were going to obey all the laws. We were going to stick to the sidewalk. We wouldn’t be blocking traffic. We’d be waiting for the lights to change. We’d do what the police said. And we would not start anything.

I didn’t stick around to see what she’d do if I kept coming and violated her personal space anyway. Blow a whistle, maybe.

Around then it occurred to me that if I was going be keeping to the sidewalks for a while, not blocking traffic, waiting for the lights to change, doing what the police said, and not starting trouble, it would be a good idea to visit the portapotties before setting out. That involved leaving the turf court and making my way down a narrow path between the chain link fence and the bleachers where spectators sit and watch turf ball or whatever it is that happens on a turf court. Unfortunately, a couple of young snowflakes with bandanas pulled over their faces like cattle rustlers had positioned themselves on the path so they could better screech their bullhorn at anybody they discovered trying to commit free speech.

When they saw me coming they couldn’t imagine I had anything in mind that didn’t have something to do with them. I think they wanted to beat feet out of there but they were stuck in place against the chain link and formed a defensive perimeter instead. The one in front shoved the bullhorn in my face and screeched me even though I wasn’t trying to say anything. And I mean, in my face. Probably two inches from my nose, where all I could hear was screech and all I could see was bullhorn. I think she learned that in a womyn’s self-defense class. In fact, judging from how ineffective it was, I’m pretty certain that’s exactly where she learned it. When I didn’t stop walking, the unarmed one, the snowflake without the bullhorn, began making gestures to mark off her personal space I wasn’t allowed inside of. In the circumstances that seemed like a lot to expect, especially since I’ve always imagined my personal space extends farther than two inches from my nose. I didn’t stick around to see what she’d do if I kept coming and violated her personal space anyway. Blow a whistle, maybe.

The march got off to a fitful start, then picked up steam. We were a convivial group chatting and making fun of the gaggle of terrorists who got in front of us. They were at a disadvantage, what with having to maintain a coherent mob while walking backwards, watching where they were going through masks, trying not to stumble, and screaming slogans between ear-shattering shrieks from the sirens they were carrying. Sometimes the noise died off enough that we marchers could talk with one another.

The guy walking next to me must have been on some kind of watchlist, because, back during the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Preserve he’d gotten a call while he was driving home from work. The call was from an FBI agent in West Virginia. “When are you going to stand up, Brother?” the FBI guy wanted to know.

“When I get out of the car.”

“When will that be?”

“After I get home.”

“What are you going to do, then?” the FBI guy said.

“Eat dinner, I suppose.”

FBI Guy lost patience with this run-around and asked him, again. “So, when are you going to stand up?”

“What are you talking about, standing up?”

“With your long guns. Out at Malheur with your brothers.”

“When trains start carrying people to the showers.”

That shut FBI Guy up for a while. Then he figured out what my companion was talking about. “Oh, you mean like in Germany?”

“Check,” my guy said. “You going to stand up then?”

“Yeah,” the FBI guy said. “Guess I’ll be doing that.”

“See that you do, Brother.”

We were happily strolling along at the head of the line like I’d planned, enjoying the antics and the beautiful spring morning, when a terrorist snowflake positioned herself in front of me pedaling backwards, and started spouting Lefty psychobabble. There must be a book somewhere, you couldn’t make that stuff up. Then, having pinioned me with the logic of her case, she folded her arms in triumph and demanded to know what I had to say to that. I told her she needed to lose weight, and she evaporated right there on the sidewalk and nobody ever saw her again.

I was motoring along so wrapped up in daring somebody, anybody, to show enough mojo to block my path that I got ahead of myself and everybody else, too.

Now I know that fat-shaming is never appropriate and I apologize right here to all the overfed terrorists in the world who might have been hurt by reading this, and am heartily sorry but you have to understand that I was under emotional stress and needed a safe space and time to recover from all the Nazi-shaming and racist-shaming and, despite the Morocco-flag-with-the-Arabic-script on my head, Islamophobe shaming, and I just lashed out without pausing to consider the lasting pain my ill-chosen words inflicted.

What I was thinking instead was, try and stop me. Just get in my way. Try and snatch me out of the parade. Go on, make me into a cause célèbre right here on national television. The cameras are rolling. Let whoever sent that email come here and physically assault an elderly, disabled veteran wearing his Purple Heart ribbon while standing up for his constitutional rights, the constitutional rights of every American, even the guy trying to snatch him out of line, just like he’d done all those years ago when he bravely marched off to Southeast Asia. See where that gets you, Wannabe Terrorist Snowflake.

I was motoring along so wrapped up in daring somebody, anybody, to show enough mojo to block my path that I got ahead of myself and everybody else, too, and when I snapped back to situational awareness, discovered I’d somehow gotten so far ahead I was marching in the wrong parade. I was the only person walking frontwards in a sea of backwards-looking masks and Mohawks and poorly-thought-out tattoos, and had to sheepishly return to where I came from and start over again.

Toward the middle of the march we passed a building with a yellow flag out front, a yellow flag with three horizontal red stripes. The flag of South Vietnam. The flag of Free Vietnam, as I’ve always thought of it. It occurred to me that the next day was the anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Today . . . when I thought about the International Date Line . . . on Saigon time. I don’t think any of the Lefties dancing backwards along with us noticed that flag. Or would have known what it was if they had. Or had a clue about the emotions the people who hung it might be feeling at the sight of masked would-be hooligans spouting commie pap a few feet away from the city they’d found sanctuary in.

About then word began to work its way up to where we were that there was going to be a flag burning and do not react to it. Before we could not react, a scuffle erupted behind where I was and people broke ranks and began streaming into a side street the way you see in film clips about riots. Evidently a guy dressed like a pumpkin had tried to snatch a Republican out of line, but the police took him away before any harm could befall him. After that, the steam went out of the counter-demonstrators and we didn’t see much more of them.

The march wound up in a Burger King parking lot, and nobody knew what to do next. Mostly what we wanted to do was visit the bathroom and down a Coke while we figured out how to get back to our cars, but Burger King wasn’t having any of that and locked the doors. No telling what would happen if rampaging Republicans got inside. Before we could work up a good rampage, a giant Pacific Islander who believed in free speech broke out in a Samoan version of those war dances the All Blacks use to intimidate their opponents before rugby matches. Hands down, it was the scariest thing all day.

A scuffle erupted behind where I was and people broke ranks and began streaming into a side street the way you see in film clips about riots.

The guy who organized the march tried to reorganize us for a march back to our cars, but the police had had enough adrenaline for one day and called in reinforcements from the bus company, and we all got free rides back, except me. I left early on foot when a definitely-out-of-the-closet woman who believed in free speech got speaking freely with a skinny guy sporting a Mohawk braided into dreadlocks: a twofer in the cultural appropriation department, if you ask me.

MAKE FASCISTS AFRAID AGAIN, that was the slogan of the people who weren’t going to give one inch, not a single inch, to Republicans wanting to parade through the streets of our city. After the riots in November the police finally found the spine to bust a guy in a pumpkin suit and the rest of the masked terrorists evaporated. Home of the brave? Ha!

Thing is, though, when we quit being the Home of the Brave we’re no longer the Land of the Free. I already miss that.




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