November 15, 2015

Opening Quote

“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was an African-American educator as well as a nationally recognized voice from the Black community. Born a slave, he overcame significant obstacles to his own education and went on to found the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama (Tuskegee University). Washington was controversial in that he believed that economic development of African-Americans trumped all other issues; therefore, he accepted the status quo in terms of segregation and White disenfranchisement of Blacks. Full equality between the races, he believed, would be the fruit of financial independence and cultural advancement. Many in the African-American community–including W.E.B. DuBois–condemned Washington for a philosophy that maintained African-American subservience to Caucasians. Washington’s autobiography is titled Up From Slavery.


I wonder. If and when ISIS and/or Al Qaeda finally luck out and obtain a nuclear weapon, which city will they incinerate? Whatever urban center they destroy will add countless new and random victims to all of the other indiscriminate deaths they’ve caused over the past two decades. Will future historians look at the body count of senseless death and refer to our time as a second Holocaust? Let’s play a game of arithmetic. Total up the random deaths in the last few days: Forty-three people died in Beirut on November 12, blown away by ISIS suicide bombers. In Paris, on November 13, another 129 perished from ISIS’s series of coordinated attacks. Now add in the victims of 9/11, and of London, and of Madrid. How many unexpected fatalities have there been in the failed states of Libya, Somalia, and Yemen? And we can’t forget Syria; not military casualties, but haphazard civilian deaths caused, for example, by government planes dropping barrel bombs on masses of non-combatants. Next, let’s consider the nameless and faceless refugees who are killed while seeking to escape war zones. Dying randomly is a given for many refugees: those from the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan; those from Africa who die in the Mediterranean; those locked in the back of trucks by people smugglers who simply walk away from men, women, and children leaving their nameless victims without food, water, or air. We can’t forget to include those unlucky enough to be slain in the periodic mass murders that occur, especially in the United States. Thousands more are killed on our streets each year from gunshots. A particularly gruesom shooting took place in Chicago on November 9 when a nine year-old boy was targeted for execution by a gang. The boy’s father, a gang member, spoke of how he knew it was an intentional hit by the placement and quantity of the wounds. He then refused to cooperate with the police investigation. Add in the litany of suicide bombings in post-war Iraq, and those who have perished anonymously in Sudan (in both Darfur and South Sudan). Throw in the never-ending victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–frequently unexpected and indiscriminate. Next, we’ll addin the killings of the drug cartels and their unceasing violence towards helpless Mexican and Central American populations. Climate change has haphazardly stolen lives via super-cyclones, tsunamis, floods, tornados, fires, new disease vectors and other natural catastrophes. In one case, almost mordantly funny, a sink-hole suddenly opened and swallowed a house in which a man was sleeping; he woke up to scream and die. Technology is completely hit-and-miss in the deaths it causes; each year, more than 30,000 in this country die unexpectedly in auto crashes. Airplanes crash: including those passengers unlucky enough to be on a plane flown into a mountain by one of the pilots. Trains crash. Busses and trucks crash. Thousands more are the unintended victims of doctors who make medical errors in hospitals. And the cherry on this bloody cake will be when that nuclear bomb detonates. Then our civilization might very well achieve a mathematical parity with the six million. And instead of “Never Again,” the total of the second Holocaust will just keep rising.


One summer, when I was a young man, I often hung out at an urban beach with a friend. When we left for the day, we headed over to a neighborhood pizza joint for a slice. In New York City, there seems to be a pizzeria every 100 feet. Although there’s some controversy, it’s generally acknowledged that in 1905, NYC was pizza’s entry point into the country from Italy. This perfect food has gone on to claim an exalted place in the national food culture. Every day, Americans consume more than 8,000,000 pizzas. Men, women, and children eat 365 slices per second. The average American scarfs down 23 pounds of pizza per year, much of it at the nation’s 70,000 pizzerias (of which 65% are independent businesses). The annual domestic revenue of the pizza market is $38 billion, with an additional $4.4 billion spent annually on frozen pizzas. The international pizza market triples the number to $130 billion. Earth is a pizza planet, with humans feasting on five billion pies each year; the U.S. accounts for 60% of the total. The top ten pizza-consuming nations, from lowest to highest, are: China; Japan; Australia; France; Russia; Italy: Germany; United Kingdom; United States; and Norway. Hard as it may seem to believe, per capita, Norway exceeds the U.S. in pizza eaten by each and every citizen. Men account for 15% of total American consumption, and women, 11%. Children, ages 2 to 19, eat the most: 20%. Pepperoni pizzas account for 36% of all pies ordered in the U.S. The largest pizza ever made measured 131 feet in diameter and weighed 25.5 tons. Although pizza started as a cheap food for the masses, in recent years the artisinal movement has elevated this humble meal into high-end status replete with celebrity chefs. Certain cheeses, sauces, and dough recipes are held to be the “true” ingredients and toppings now include whatever can be imagined. Then there is the thin-crust versus deep-dish competition. Cooking too provides many choices: for example, coal-fired ovens; and hand-made wood burning ovens specifically designed for baking pizzas (and which sell for thousands). There’s even a bozo pizza song!


Indelible images from World War II are crowds of docile Jews neatly marching off to oblivion in the Holocaust. There were many exceptions–such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising–but at least in terms of pop culture, the doomed Jews of Europe did not seek to fight their German butchers. The State of Israel was born in 1948 out of the ashes of the death camps. Immediately, upon the unfurling of the Israeli flag, the country was invaded by an overwhelming number of Arab troops from five nations. The Arab concept of victory was to drive both native-born and regugee Israelis into the sea and essentially finish what Hitler had started. But the Israelis proved to be able warriors and defeated the combined Arab onslaught. This was the beginning of a different vision of Jews: the Israeli war machine (with significant American aid) has become the dominant military power in the Middle East. Likewise, the Mossad, Israel’s foreign-intelligence service, is viewed as world class, on a par, or better, than the CIA, MI-6, and the KGB (or its successor). An American novelist, Daniel Silva, has created 14 thrillers featuring a hero, Gabriel Allon, who is a Mossad superstar in terms of strategic and tactical planning, as well as being an unstoppable practitioner of the black arts. He is Super Jew. In the series, Allon “made his bones” by mounting an operation targeting each member of the Black September terror squad that murdered Israeli athletes at th 1972 Munich Olympics. (In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized such a mission, which was made into the film Munich.) In most of Silva’s Gabriel Allon books, a “Mission Impossible” type operation is mounted by Allon leading his Mossad colleagues. The consequences are usually so high that the operation is almost inevitably submitted to the Israeli Prime Minister for approval. These tales are exciting, the bad guys are genuinely evil, and Allon inevitably triumphs. He is assisted by a hand-picked team of specialists, such as computer wizards and research analysts. Allon’s cover is that of a master art restorer, which allows Silva to introduce philosophical and aesthetic questions. The hero, in effect, is schizophrenic: as an art expert he is non-violent and superbly talented; the son and grandson of artists, Allon in another life might have found himself on the staff of the Met, Tate, or Louvre. In this iteration, Allon is hopeful and open to new possibilities. In his intelligence role, all Allon observes are threats and opportunities. Allon has become a kind of terminator: relentless, unstoppable, able to overcome whatever wounds or obstacles he encounters. The latest work, 2015’s The Heistas always mixes art and espionage–as well as the computer theft of a huge sum of money from the bad, bad, bad guy. Allon is tightly compartmentalized in terms of his two personalities: for example, he never questions the occupation of the West Bank, or the rights of the Palestinians to a nation state, or the sometimes brutal actions of his government. Or they are acknowledged and minimized in terms of the greater good. I have a feeling that Silva consciously keeps Allon away from these controversies so as to not unintentionally alienate any potential readers. The Allon series–wonderfully readable with great plots–has been translated into 30 languages.
Ken Handel. The Confusion of France and Italy. 2015. 18 x 24. There’s no confusion in either country today about Friday’s attacks on Paris. This, and more than 20 other original artworks are available as prints at Etsy.com.

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