Put ‘er there, pal.

April 21, 2009




Former Vice President Dick Cheney thinks President Obama has sent the wrong message by traveling to Europe and Latin America and suggesting that the United States is rethinking its recent foreign policies. Cheney said last night that Obama needs to distinguish more clearly between “the good guys and the bad guys,” which I learned to do when I was 10 years old playing cops and robbers with Mike and Joe Pellegrino. That’s how we think when we’re 10.

Cheney is dismissing what we learned from Richard Nixon, that pretending that your adversaries and critics don’t exist (Cheney said the Bush administration’s policy was to “ignore” Hugo Chavez) is seldom productive. Cheney didn’t like that Obama shook hands with Chavez. Nixon shook hands with Zhou Enlai because China’s fall-out with the Soviets created an opportunity for the U.S. with respect to both countries, and, I suppose, because Henry Kissinger’s earlier snub of the Chinese premier had gained the United States nothing. The old “good guy-bad guy” model seldom works. And the idea that Cheney casts himself and his kind as the “good guys”  in this world is exactly the kind of hubris that causes more trouble than it solves.

swastikajpgThe New York Times today reports on a Holocaust museum that has been established in Skokie, Ill. Skokie became the home of many survivors of the Holocaust, and 32 years ago it was chosen for that reason as the site of a march by a group of neo-Nazis. The Nazis’ plan and the opposition to it set off a debate on free speech. The march never took place, but the hubris of the Nazis inspired Holocaust survivors to be more open about what had happened to them and their families, and that change led to establishment of the museum.

The times reports that “unlike similar institutions, the Skokie museum is almost totally anchored in the local, brought to life with the personal pictures, documents, clothing, testimonies and other artifacts of the building’s own neighbors. And several of the Holocaust survivors are working as docents and other staff members, weaving their first-person stories into the history, exploring issues of genocide around the world.”

That’s a powerful and important concept and one that could be emulated, even if needs be on a smaller scale, in other towns and cities where there are still people left to tell this story first hand. That’s true not only because there will always be those who deny – contrary to the indisputable evidence – that the Holocaust took place, and because even those who acknowledge the Holocaust should be reminded of it – both the fact of it and its enduring impact on families all over the world.  Historical epochs are like that; they don’t end on any given day but continue indefinitely to affect the lives of succeeding generations – as the era of American slavery directly affects millions of people living today.

The Times also published an account today of a relatively new body of research on some of the lesser-known Nazi “killing fields.” It’s at this site:


vietato_fumareCorriere della Sera is reporting today on a bill in the Italian legislature that would, among other things, require cigarette manufacturers to insert in each pack a leaflet identifying specific substances, including metals, that are present in the products and that may cause cancer. The bill also would ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18, require retailers to ask customers for IDs, and prohibit smoking in schools, including secondary schools. Smoking in schools is already illegal, but the law in that regard is widely ignored – something those familiar with Italian society won’t find surprising.

This bill is part of an ongoing government campaign against smoking in Italy, about 32.6 percent of men and 20.7 of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are smokers. The newspaper reported that the average starting age of smokers is 13, but seven out of ten smokers start when they are 12.

94px-italian_pack I can’t help thinking of a man whose last name was Romeo (pronounced ro-MAY-oh) who used to frequent my grandfather’s grocery store. Mr. Romeo was blind and made his way around town with a cane. We used to keep a stock of these little Italian cigars that only he would buy. But I don’t know where else he would have bought them, given his circumstances, and I don’t think he would have had much reason to live if he couldn’t smoke them. Heaven only knows what he was inhaling, but we wouldn’t have recognized him without one of those little stogies in his mouth. They stunk like hell, but they gave him a certain panache.

This story also reminds me of Nicola Mariano, our back-to-back neighbor, a man who had only one arm. He used to smoke De Nobili tobacco in his pipe. We had a similar relationship with Nick in that we stocked that tobacco just for him. Most people in their right minds wouldn’t have smoked that stuff even in those  days before smokers were officially designated as lepers. But Nick wouldn’t have been Nick if he didn’t wile way a summer  afternoon sitting on the bread box in front of our store, with that reeking pipe between his teeth, making wisecracks at our customers as they came and went.

My paternal grandfather wasn’t a smoker – at least, not while I knew him. One of the things he left behind was his army handbook. That would be the army of King Emanuel II, in which Grandpa served between 1906 and 1909. One piece of advice that the handbook offered the dashing young soldiers was that “lo smoderato fumare danneggia la salute” – intemperate smoking damages (one’s) health. By now we know that even moderate smoking can be lethal to the smoker and possibly those around him, but we would have had a hard time convincing Mr. Romeo and Nick, both of whom died in their 90s, and enjoyed themselves whilst they waited.




Television newscasters last night were preoccupied with questions about why and how the Obamas touched Queen Elizabeth II. The Obamas gave the queen the two-handed shake, and that – according to people who care about such things – is reserved for those one knows very well, indeed. Also, Michelle Obama put her arm around the queen at one point, and that – so the experts say – is flirting with impropriety (although it was obvious in the clip that was run over and over and over again that the queen also briefly touched Michelle Obama’s back during that encounter). And, of course, there’s the iPod.

This business gets me thinking again about the purpose of monarchy in the 21st century, at least in places where the monarch does not govern. Monarchs who do govern are problematic in themselves, but that’s another issue. I discussed this once with a chemist in Denmark. We were having dinner, and I asked him why he thought a country like his – advanced in most ways – hangs on to the monarchy, in that case, Queen Margrethe II. Denmark has so far removed the monarchy from any real influence in government that members of the royal family do not vote in elections, although they have the right to. The chemist thought about this for a few seconds; he seemed to never have considered the question before and certainly didn’t have a pat answer. Finally he said, “Well, she is Denmark, isn’t she?” which I guess is as good an explanation as any. Of course a flag serves the same purpose, but if you hug a flag, it doesn’t hug back.

BRITAIN-BANKING-COMPANY-STOCK-RBSIt was heartwarming to read this morning that among those who broke into the Royal Bank of Scotland and fairly trashed the joint were anarchists. I’ve always been attracted to anarchism as a political idea because, as far as I can tell, anarchists have never agreed on what it means. In that regard, it’s like existentialism in philosophy, a perfectly good term, according to Jacques Maritain, except for the “incidental disadvantage” that it “has been used to mean so many things that it no longer means anything at all.” What could be more suited to a word like anarchism than confusion over what it signifies. The word certainly has panache. If I were going to break into an institution like the Royal Bank of Scotland and throw keyboards through the windows, I’d certainly like to be identified in the press as an anarchist. Who better than an anarchist – whatever that means – to make such a graphic protest against a stodgy old institution that just gave its chief executive officer a million-dollar-plus sendoff after the government had to rescue the bank from the consequences of its bad business practices? Sound familiar? 

I think my favorite anarchist is Errico Malatesta. His surname reminds me of a squib from George Ade: “The more he thought about it, the more his head hurt.”

“Never again”?

February 28, 2009

I once read a caveat about words – that even God can’t kill them once they’re said. I don’t know if that’s theologically correct, but it applies in my mind to Richard Williamson, the pseudo-bishop who thinks the Holocaust has been exaggerated if it took place at all. Williamson is a reactionary who wouldn’t accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and went off into the ultraconservative Pius IX society to play at being a Medieval Catholic. Among the games was his ordination as a bishop. Benedict XVI, trying to end the schism, agreed to allow Williamson and four other priests back into the Church, but Williamson embarrassed the pope and made himself a laughing stock by questioning in an interview many aspects of the Holocaust that are well documented – by the Nazis themselves, among others. The Vatican responded to the furor that followed that statement by saying Williamson would have to recant that statement if he expected to function as a Catholic bishop. All he has done is issue a statement saying that he’s sorry he caused such a fuss. The Vatican rejected that statement and said again that Williamson must explicitly disavow any question about the reality and the dimensions of the crimes committed against Jews and others during World War II. There was nothing ambiguous about the Vatican’s position, so Williamson’s statement was obviously disingenuous. No matter what he says now, he should not function as a priest, never mind a bishop. Instead, he should be put to work recording the reminiscences of the GIs who liberated those death camps.