Friday, October 30, 2009



I don't want to think about how many hours it has taken to get from there to here. Up at 5 am to get to Malpensa Milano Airport for an 0650 flight to Amsterdam. Milano time an hour later than what used to be called Greenwich Mean Time, now Universal Coordinated Time (UTC), or what pilots refer to as "Zulu." A three and a half hour layover at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. I passed the time by going mad. Then an eight-hour flight to the home airport. Then watching the bags, not ours -- I got to know lots of them well -- circling around the carousel at baggage claim for five years subjective time. Eventually ours made a belated appearance and a cab ride later we were back at Start.

Say what you like (or don't like) about long-haul air travel, it is still a strange and remarkable experience. A view of the Alps from 37,000 feet is fresh in my mind, yet an ocean and a continent away. Since I slept last, I have been above Scotland (which was wearing a white blanket of cloud), within hailing distance of Greenland, over Newfoundland, Quebec, Vermont. Those places really go in for clouds in this season, but even if I couldn't see anything except the odd half-frozen lake, it's astounding to think I was shooting through their skies mere hours ago.

Straightaway after greeting the cats on arrival at home base -- I'd almost forgotten that Matisse can't sit still -- I had to do something to affirm being back. I went into the media room (not as pretentious as it sounds, a small room into which I've jammed all the audio and video equipment other than my wife's TV and sound system, which occupies a deal of real estate in the living room), and put on Bruckner's Symphony no. 2.

The version by Georg Tintner and the National Orchestra of Ireland. Not as splendid a performance as Karajan and his Berlin Philharmonic, the greatest orchestra that has ever been or probably ever will be, but there are no flies on Tintner and the recording is more recent and detailed (also a different edition than Karajan used). You can truly hear the double basses down to their lowest moan.

Tintner was an eccentric conductor who never had a major orchestra of his own -- he spent some years at the head of an orchestra in New Zealand, if I recall. Then late in his life the blessed budget label Naxos offered him the chance to perform and record the Bruckner symphonies, which I gather were close to his heart. He recorded all nine, then soon afterward at the age of 80 or so chose to end his life.

Anyway, where was I? Where am I? Oh, right, home and writing stream-of-consciousness twaddle.

I'm not sure whether it's yesterday, today, or tomorrow. When I figure it out, after a spell in Dreamland, I'll have some further descriptions of the viaggio in Italia.

Good night, or good morning, whatever it is where you are or I am.


Monday, October 26, 2009

The New Rome


What was the capital of the Roman Empire? Rome, you say, of course. True, but so was Ravenna, for a brief period as the Western Empire tottered on its last legs. In 402, the Emperor Honorius packed up and moved the capital here, to Ravenna. His sister, Galla Placidia, seems to have been in charge of things for a while.

She built a final resting place for herself, rather small -- possibly even an emperor's sister didn't command the resources for a larger one by then -- but it was showy enough, all the walls and ceiling covered with mosaics. It still stands, with a sarcophagus that historians say isn't really hers, but the glittering stars and deep blue sky on the ceiling are almost close enough to touch, a heaven that seems to be within our grasp.

We visited Galla Placidia's mausoleum today, and three other monuments and basilicas of late antiquity: San Vitale, the "Orthodox" Baptistry (so called because the establishment Athenasians were in charge of it, in contrast to the "protestant" Arian sect of Christianity), and San Appolonare Nuovo. All contain richly decorative mosaics that were intended as messages of spiritual urgency.

Those other monuments were built around a century later, after the Western Roman Empire went into its final sleep, during a period when Ravenna was ruled by Ostrogoth kings and later by exarchs from Constantinople.

Regardless of whether one is a believer or not, all these works of art are inspirational: they seem to glow from within: they contain the world of their time and place that mattered to rulers and ordinary people, from Jesus and saints to the oriental opulence of the Emperor Justinian, the Empress Theodora, and their richly adorned courtiers. But there is also "pure" design, landscapes, clouds, birds, swags of fruit, even geometrical and abstract ornamentation.

It's something of a miracle that they have lasted for one thousand five hundred years, so that we can gaze with wonder on them just as when they were created.

In these buildings, we are at a turning point in history, between the trailing artistic motifs of classicism and a new, almost entirely different way of seeing and feeling that we call Byzantine. The sense of craft being exercised at a cusp of ages can be seen in another, less important but interesting, way. Some of the saints and individuals portrayed carry scrolls, awkwardly unrolled. Others, even in the same scheme, hold the cool new thing, a book (codex).

The earlier, more traditional mosaics are expressive in a way that seems more natural and has been "modern" since the Renaissance. The people who are pictured gesture and relate to one another. Comes the Byzantine and we are in a new mode of seeing, thinking and worshiping.

The ordinary falls away: there are, at least in art, no more trivial moments, only very serious ones. The people portrayed, mostly in groups, are statuesque, formal, seeming to float more than stand. Jesus, the saints and apostles, the exotically robed aristocracy of Constantinople, look directly at us. Through us? We are such stuff as dreams are made on, they seem to say, and only the light of God can open our eyes to what is real.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Day three


Or in English, Padua. Why the different English versions of perfectly simple Italian names? Is "Padova" unpronounceable? Or for that matter, "Livorno," transliterated into the ridiculous "Leghorn"?

Anyhow, yesterday was spent mainly in transit from Milano (why "Milan"?) to Padova, with a side trip to the southwest portion of Lake Garda, a subject I will take up later, probably after returning to home base.

The north is nothing like the conventional version of Italy. Until Julius Caesar placed it under his tender care, it was not even part of Italy; they called it Cisalpine Gaul ("Gaul this side of the Alps"). What I've seen so far reminds me sometimes of France, sometimes of California, sometimes of Anyplace and No Place.

Padova is the pits. Not a half-measure of romanticism, no warmth in the people, ugly modern architecture and half-upgraded 19th century buildings. Of course there is what is called the Centro Storico, the historic center, but it consists of a few medieval monuments almost lost in a sea of commercialism and student quick-this-quick-that (it's Europe's second-oldest university town, but college students are the same everywhere).

We are staying here for two reasons. The first was bad planning on my part: to save money by not kipping down at one of Venice's dreadfully overpriced caravansaries. The NH Mantegna in Padova is up-to-date, mercilessly chilly in ambience.

But there is Giotto. The second reason we came here.

Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel are a wonder. Even the sour taste of driving around for a half hour in the congested downtown trying to find it and parking half a mile away -- this city hasn't the first idea about how to accommodate art lovers -- dissipated once we were admitted to the chapel. (At least, in the off season, we didn't have to reserve three days in advance, as visitors are advised to do in summer.)

The paintings cover the entire chapel, a bold and yet intimate evocation of the artist's pictorial and psych0logical genius. No description I have read gives a very good idea of the chapel, and I won't try; part of its marvelous quality is how it all works together.

Tomorrow, our first foray into Venice.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Tiepolo, Rinaldo and Armida

My wife and I are heading to Italy tomorrow. I still don't own a laptop, so posting will be intermittent, but I will write entries when I can find cheap connectivity at a hotel or Internet cafe.

Regular posting will resume about November 1.



Friday, October 16, 2009

Bella Principessa — a rediscovered da Vinci?


The first discovery in a century of a Leonardo da Vinci painting has been announced.

The ID seems fairly certain if, as the announcement says, it literally has da Vinci's fingerprint preserved in the paint. Of course, the Old Masters had workshops and sometimes only painted part of a picture or applied the finishing touches, so there are vague borderlines in attribution that will always be controversial.

But most of us can leave it to the scholars to debate such things, and just be happy that this has surfaced. The portrait certainly has Leonardo's refined sensitivity, a profile that combines tenderness and intelligence. What a lovely reminder of the heights artistry can achieve.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Washington's Population Replacement Museum


The latest step in turning the United States into a Latin American country is a proposed National Museum of the American Latino.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked the congressionally created commission to report back to lawmakers in one year instead of two on the viability of the museum, with lead organizers predicting that a museum celebrating the American Latino experience, possibly on the National Mall, is about 10 years away.
Ten years? That may be how long it will take to build it. But the authorization will probably occur in the second year of the Obama Caliphate, slipped as an amendment into a bill on fishing subsidies or green energy. Most of our Congressduds won't even know what they're voting for. Reading bills is so 20th century.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Caliph
Obama at National Latino Museum Opening, 2015

They are considering as a site the Smithsonian's now-closed Arts and Industries building. Wherefore closed? Well, it used to display examples of historical American manufacturing progress. That's so, you know, 19th century. Today we devote our national museums to ethnic consciousness. " … The National Museum of African American History and Culture is expected to open on the Mall in 2015," the story says.

The comments at include some lulus:

"I wonder if you'll enter the museum through a tunnel?"

"How much space will be devoted to human sacrifice and cannibalism?"

"When you get to the museum, don't drink the water."

"To make the experience complete, when you park your car it'll be stripped and put up on cinder blocks until you leave."

"Great. Another ethnic museum. I can see the exhibits now — The Evolution of the Taco. Enchiladas Throughout History. How the White Man Destroyed A Peaceful People. How Oppressed Illegals Help The US Economy. The Myths About Mexican Gang Crime in Los Angeles. Wonderful. Where can I donate?"

For my part, I wonder if there will be separate drinking fountains, one labeled La Raza and the other, Los Gringos.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Toronto debriefing


Last week I was at a conference in Toronto. It was the first time in 15 years I'd been to "British Canada" -- a phrase which is now unspeakable and would probably subject me to a heavy fine.

Of course, a few days (mostly spent inside the Fairmont Royal York Hotel downtown) is hardly enough to get a balanced picture of the state of things in our northern neighbor. What follows is admittedly no more than impressions, except for a few facts as reported by the local newspaper.

Last time I went through Toronto Pearson airport, transiting on the way to London, it was undergoing massive redevelopment. As one waggish Air Canada employee said, it was "the world's largest construction site with its own airport." The results seem to have been successful. As airports go, it is quite welcoming. And, at least in the terminal where I arrived and departed, calm: no TV monitors in the lounges, no security announcements every five minutes. Can you believe it?


Although I didn't see much of Toronto (except on the local television news), I spoke with quite a few Canadians during the conference, and believe I got some of the vibe.

In general, they do not like the United States.

As a guest, I avoided bringing up politics or anything that might be controversial, but inevitably political and social issues arose from time to time. All the Canadians I spoke to were perfectly courteous, even in their U.S. bashing, and most were friendly toward me. But behind the polite facade, I sensed a firm disapproval.

It is not that they don't understand us. They understand us, and they don't like what they know.


Behind specific issues lurks a difference in temperament. Canadians trust government, regardless of their divisions in party politics. This may be the only country in the world where you can say, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you" and be believed. Capable of heated controversy over particular policies, Canadians nevertheless in general believe government knows best.

I can respect the historical reasons for their outlook. Canada still takes some of its tone from the Loyalists who left the colonies on the eve of the American war for independence and headed north. The Loyalists were reasonable, in addition to their emotional ties with Great Britain. They knew they would be persecuted for their politics if they stayed in place during the war, and that most revolutions end in tears. They were unable to know in advance that the American revolution would be one of the rare successful ones and would result in a brilliant Constitution and a humane Bill of Rights.

But it seems that they've not quite gotten over the idea that we're the bad seed.


I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman I met by chance (he was not involved in the conference). Well dressed, in his 60s, he was quite knowledgeable about many aspects of Canadian life (as well as American; he'd gotten a couple of degrees at Chicago University). He is on the board of the Canadian branch of a well-known U.S. insurance company.

We chatted about the U.S. health care flap. He had lots of facts and figures ready to hand, I suppose because of his line of work. Canada, he told me, spends on health care about half as much as a percentage of GDP as the United States does. He acknowledged that the Canadian government-run system had plenty of problems, but said that it worked reasonably well for most people. I assumed he would next sing the praises of Obamacare.

Surprisingly, though, he said that what was sauce for the Canadian goose was not sauce for the American gander. Government health care was appropriate in Canada, but not in the U.S. If I understood him correctly, it was another example of differing national temperaments.


"We are a multi-cultural society," he said. "Here in Toronto, we have people of 200 different national origins." He spoke neither approvingly or disapprovingly. My interpretation is that for him, it was just a fact. It was what the government had decided. End of story.

Channel surfing one evening, I found one (no doubt taxpayer-supported) dedicated to all, or most, of Toronto's communities. Each ethnicity got its dedicated daypart. I watched news from Toronto and Italy in Italian, with commercials for local Italian businesses, mainly restaurants and a Catholic cemetery. A promo informed me that the following time block would be in Cantonese. I suppose it continues that way throughout the week. Monday 9 to 11, Russian. Wednesday 5 to 7, Ethiopian. Saturday 2 to 4, Papua New Guinean.

I discreetly brought up in the conversation with the businessman the Muslim population. No problem, he said. The police and security services have moles in every jihadist group. The firebrands are monitored more closely in Canada than their equivalents in the United States. And Canada wouldn't put up with burkas and that sort of thing.

Indeed, the following day's Globe and Mail reported that one Zakaria Amara had entered a guilty plea as one of the "Toronto 18" who planned "a terrorist attack that would dwarf the 2007 London subway bombings."

His attack against Toronto would be so big it would reprise of the Battle of Badr, in which the Prophet Mohammed's forces won a decisive victory for Islam against a vast army of unbelievers.

It didn't turn out that way. Instead, Mr. Amara issued a surprise guilty plea in a Brampton courtroom yesterday morning, more than 40 months after he and 17 others were arrested in connection with the most audacious and ambitious terrorist attack planned in Canada.

His cohorts were too deliberate for Amara. He wanted action.

He struck out on his own in the spring. A singular idea obsessed him: Building fertilizer-based truck bombs to raze Toronto skyscrapers.

He hatched plans to rent U-Hauls and turn them into mobile bombs, hoping to plant one huge truck bomb outside a military base, probably Canadian Forces Base Trenton, along Highway 401; a second bomb would rip into the Toronto Stock Exchange; a third, into the Toronto offices of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

In line with what my acquaintance said, the security services had rolled up the plotters before they could carry out their deeds. Canada 1, Jihad 0.

All one happy multi-cultural family, then, with the proverbial small minority of extremists kept in check. I'm not so sure. The Great Burka Debate is by no means settled, as two letters in the same issue of the Globe and Mail suggested. They read:

As a practising Muslim, I’m no fan of the face veil worn by a minority of Muslim women. Neither am I a fan of overt sexuality, nudity or the Muslim Canadian Congress (Muslim Group Moves To Ban Burka – online, Oct. 7). As far as I’m concerned, the state has no business in the bedrooms or the closets of the people.

Where public safety and the law requires it, veiled women, KISS fans and Project Chanology’s members wearing Guy Fawkes masks should all be identifiable. But how we choose to present ourselves to the world is part of our fundamental right of expression.

Nikhat Rasheed, Mississauga, Ont.


The Muslim Canadian Congress is claiming to promote freedom, but, by calling on Ottawa to ban the burka, it’s the one trying to restrict other people’s choices. Let’s look at this issue logically: A very small number of Muslim Canadian women choose to wear the burka. These women are also professionals and homemakers; they travel, drive cars and sit on parent/teacher councils. They have not asked for special consideration, and they remove their veils for identification requirements when necessary. Furthermore, since millions of Canadians cover their faces in winter, how does the Muslim Canadian Congress propose to apply this ban?

Shahina Siddiqui, president, Islamic Social Services Association Inc.-Canada, Winnipeg

Once you accept multi-culturalism as a trump card, you have no basis for stopping any group from exercising its own traditions, even if they're 180 degrees removed from that of the indigenous population. Within their own frame of reference, the two letter writers are reasonable. If Canada has embraced them as Canadians, how can it refuse them what they believe is a "fundamental right of expression" -- even if, for some, that's burkas, sharia courts, female genital mutilation, or honor killings? It's the basic assumption that is cracked, the one that says a country must be the world.


Canada seems to me only technically a country these days. It once had an identity other than the "un-America" and two hundred solitudes. I didn't, but I wanted to ask the businessman why Canada had to import people from every nation and culture on earth. Was there something wrong with Canadians? Could they not cut it without vast infusions from outside? What skills did these Toronto immigrants have that British and French Canadians were short of?

And why did Canada have to spend what must surely have run to millions of its citizens' tax dollars for surveillance and trials of the jihadists it had welcomed to its shores, while running the risk that sooner or later a plot wouldn't be discovered in time? I have a similar question about my own, my native land.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ignoble Peace Prize

Chairman, Nobel committee,
at the formal announcement ceremony

Have you heard the joke about the Nobel Peace Prize?

The prize is the joke.

But a better joke is on the way. The Failed Messiah's handlers will insert a line in his acceptance speech about how "humble" he feels.


Monday, October 05, 2009

No more postings until the weekend

Airline routes of the world
(Tip of the hat: Douglas Wilson)

I'll be out of town. Dig you later.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

You knew this was coming

"Some Chicago officials say anti-American resentment likely played a role in Chicago's Olympic bid dying in the first round Friday. President Obama could not undo in one year the resentment against America that President Bush and others built up for years, they said."

-- Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 3, 2009

Reverend Jesse "Shakedown" Jackson inevitably chimed in: "The world had a very bad taste in its mouth about us. But there was such a turnaround after last November. The world now feels better about America and about Americans. That's why I thought the president's going was the deal-maker."

Deal maker? Sorry, Rev, but believe it or not, the whole world doesn't play by Chicago Rules.


Saturday, October 03, 2009

We aren't the world

Call it Schadenfreude if you want. My peak experience of the past week was the headline that the Olympics committee had ignored the lobbying of Mr. and Mrs. Failed Messiah in their top-priority mission to capture the games for Chicago. (A mission that cost U.S. taxpayers -- you, if you're not poor or very rich -- around one million bucks.)

It was also a little shocking in what it revealed about the mind field of the F.M. In the previous posting, I ventured that the bid for a Chicago Olympics was already a done deal behind the scenes, with nothing left but the grinning and posing for the cameras. Surely, the F.M. and his next of kin wouldn't have made such a hugely visible move, committing the prestige of the president's office -- no, scratch that, with him it's all personal, so it was his prestige -- if there was any serious possibility that he would get a smack in the chops.

A smart strategist always has a homunculus sitting on his shoulder, whispering in his ear: "Okay, Brainbox, what if it doesn't work?" A more technical term is risk management. A rational calculation of the benefits if a plan is successful versus the cost if it fails.


If the F.M. had considered the consequences of the Olympic committee rejecting his pitch, he would have limited his efforts to quiet diplomatic maneuvering. Had he been successful, he could then have "accidentally" let the word leak out that his magic touch and that of the First Failed Messiah Lady had bowled a strike.

So what can we deduce from this colossal public relations flop? Mainly that (1) the F.M. is incapable of objective analysis, and (2) he is still convinced that the adoration of the world's leftists gives him mana, a mysterious power that he emanates and will part whatever waves he wishes to drive his chariot through.

Both deductions, but especially the second, are why this man is frightening in a way that Bill Clinton never was. Clinton was equally egotistical, and his door was always open to hucksters for every brand of social engineering, but he had a saving pragmatic streak. He could read the public mind. Given a few more terms and a flagging sex drive, he might have evolved into a reasonably sensible and clever agent for the country's interests.


The Failed Messiah is the opposite. He believes he is right because he has a divine right. He has been sent to deliver America from its sins and dissolve it into an egalitarian, multi-cultural flat Earth. There can be no compromise, because that would be a reflection on him.

Which is why he goes where angels fear to tread, why he can set himself up for a defeat like the Olympics fiasco. It wasn't about the Olympics. It wasn't even about Chicago boosterism. It was to show the United Nations State that America, that old, aggressive, self-protective America, was toast -- redeemed by the multi-cultural new order, signified by Chicago and, not least, by Himself.

The Times (U.K.) reports:
President Barack Obama said he would use the Olympics to restore the image of the United States as an accessible and multi-ethnic nation after an impassioned pitch to win the 2016 Games for Chicago.
The President told the International Olympic Committee (IOC), gathered today in Copenhagen to decide between his hometown, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo, that America was ready to re-engage with the world after years when its sense of diversity had not been reflected abroad.
If he thinks about it at all, the F.M. thinks that an America populated mainly by indigenous Americas was evidence that it was not ready to "engage" with the world. All we did was help win a World War and then face down Soviet aggression for 70 years. But that doesn't count, not when our "sense of diversity had not been reflected abroad."
Responding to a question by Syed Shahid Ali, the IOC member for Pakistan, about the “pretty harrowing experience” of many foreign visitors to the US, he said: “One of the legacies I want to see coming out of 2016 is a reminder that America, at its best, is open to the world. We are putting the full force of the White house and the State Department into making sure that not only is this a successful Games but that visitors from all around the world feel welcome and will come away with a sense of the incredible diversity of the American people.”
At this point in history we can only dream of a U.S. president who would respond, "What pretty harrowing experiences do you mean, Syed? Our flying the World Trade Center into a couple of airliners, whose passengers included members of our richly diverse population? Arresting some bomb hobbyists?"
The President does have power over security and immigration issues however. He promised to deal with them and stressed the ethnic diversity of Chicago, which is home to people drawn from 130 nationalities.
“We’ve got everyone. This could be a meeting in Chicago, because we look like the world. Over the last several years sometimes that fundamental truth about the United States has been lost,” he said.
May I propose another fundamental truth about the United States? We aren't the world. We are the United States. And that's a truth the Failed Messiah has not lost, because he never had it.