Thursday, November 12, 2015

This Isn't My Father's Republican Party: Waiting for 9 Thermidor

The Reign of Terror ends
The good and the bad disappear alike from the earth; but in very different conditions. ~ Maximilien Robespierre (his last speech)

My father was a true-red, die-hard Republican. He almost didn't care who was on the ballot representing either party. All Republican contenders got his vote. Except in 1964. Barry Goldwater and his neo-Bircher and religious right supporters gave Dad pause. I don't know how he finally cast his ballot that year, but I do recall his complaint about the GOP going off the rails. He felt better after the grown-ups in the GOP took their party back following that disastrous election. Dad was a farm kid-turned-self-made small businessman who distrusted Big Government, Big Money and "big city sharpies" of whatever political persuasion. He was comfortable with Ike, Tricky Dick and the Gipper. JFK, LBJ, The Man from Plains and other "tax-and-spend" Democrats all gave him agita. He was typical of his class and region. Serious center-right Rotary Club members with a strong sense of fairness and tolerance. Were he alive today, I am convinced he would be asking himself where his Republican Party went.

“Anyone caught involved in voter fraud should be immediately deported and have his citizenship revoked.” - Dr. Ben Carson

"You know, it really doesn`t matter what [the media] write as long as you`ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass." – Donald Trump

“Regardless of how long I might serve in the United States Senate I hope one day to be granted a letter of marque and reprisal so that I could become a pirate as I longed to be as a child. And you’re all invited to join me when I get that letter of marque and reprisal.” - Sen. Ted Cruz


What happened to Ike's admonition:

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist."

Or Nixon's:

"Unless we adopt and enforce strict gun control laws -- ones much tougher than the Brady Bill -- we will never succeed in stemming the violence."

Or Reagan on America as a beacon:  

“America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill.” 

A leading contender for the U.S. presidency states that the "theory" of evolution was dictated to Darwin by Satan. Another, invoking the spirit of Adolf Eichmann, argues for a "deportation force" that would round up 11 million illegal aliens for resettlement outside The Homeland. Supply-side economics -- what George H.W. Bush aptly termed, "voodoo economics" -- dominates the platforms of Republican aspirants. We hear more on controlling women's bodies than on trade policy. In the last general election, there was debate among Republicans about "legitimate rape" while a witch and a pizza magnate with a penchant for sexual assault fulminated on equally outlandish topics.

Where are the Rotary Clubs? The Chambers of Commerce? The veterans organizations? All those bedrock institutions of traditional conservatism that folks like my father supported? All seem to be silent or cowed these days as one parvenu fraud after another hijacks the GOP while Jeb! et al. languish. If the Evil One has been playing mischief anywhere, it's with the Republican Party, not with Charles Darwin.

I heard a veteran CNN political reporter state recently that among her fellow journalists, some of whom were now on their tenth presidential election, none could recall anything like what we're witnessing today in Republican politics. Candidates without a lick of public service lead while so-called establishment candidates poll in the single digits. Candidates with apocryphal back stories and stream of conscience platforms surge in popularity in face of their exposed untruths and wacko-bird views on society and governance. Reasons posited for this turn to the hard right include gerrymandering, echo chamber news media outlets, Citizens United and an increasing class divide. A particularly disturbing recent study shows a surging mortality rate among under-educated working class whites. Nothing drives desperation and consequent extremism more than prospects of imminent death. Trump, Carson and Cruz pander to this group's fears. In an excellent essay on Republican drift to the hard right, Richard North Patterson notes "it is inescapable that an increasing number of Republican primary voters live in a hothouse of intellectual alienation where anger and disinformation thrive." Looking at American history, I would hearken back to the years just preceding the Civil War to find a comparable period of growing political dissonance and anger.

I am no fan of the French Revolution, which made our own late-18th century contretemps with the British seem tame. The Reign of Terror that scourged French society under the leadership of Robespierre and the powerful and euphemistically named Committee of Public Safety led to the massacre of tens of thousands of innocents. Following the overthrow of the monarchy, the French body politic plunged into the throes of revolutionary extremism. Finally, on 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794), a group of counterrevolutionaries overthrew the radicals, sending some two dozen to the guillotine, and proceeded to restore some sense of normality to civic life.

Now, I don't favor beheadings -- at least not in the literal sense. But at least since 2008, I've been waiting for a counterrevolution within the Republican Party, GOP Thermidorians, if you will, a la 1964. But it hasn't happened - yet. Worse still, there is no glimmer of such a reaction taking place. If anything, that party continues to slide into a fever swamp of railings against immigrants, women, science, gun control, diplomacy, voter inclusion and sound economics -- positions guaranteed to lose yet another presidential election and build up yet more seething resentment in the conservative ranks. The Tea Party and Freedom Caucus have dispatched the moderates to the political guillotine. The Charles Percy's, Edward Brooks's, Jacob Javits's, Nelson Rockefellers, Alan Simpsons, Clifford Cases, Howard Bakers and Margaret Chase Smiths are truly history, not to be replaced. Would Lincoln, TR, Eisenhower, even Nixon and perhaps, who knows, Reagan feel at home in today's GOP? I don't think so. And neither would my Dad.

Sunday, August 30, 2015


A furore normannorum libera nos, Domine
(Lord, deliver us from the fury of the Norsemen)
~ Medieval European prayer

When asked on NBC's "Meet the Press about the idea of building a northern wall as a barrier with Canada, Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker said, "That is a legitimate issue for us to look at... It starts with securing the homeland."

As one who lives in the shadow of the Canadian giant and that country's creeping imperialism in the form of Tim Horton's, Labatt's beer and their cunning insinuation of heart-busting poutine into our diet, I wholeheartedly support Mr. Walker's proposal. You can call it xenophobia. I call it protection of the Homeland.

We American patriots who reside a mere cannon ball's shot from Canada have a lot of resentments against our northern neighbor. Let's start with the American Revolution. After we threw off the yoke of British oppression, Lower Canada welcomed droves of so-called United Empire Loyalists -- those American colonialists who refused to embrace "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and instead stubbornly remained loyal to a nutso foreign king, contentedly paying taxes to the crown. In a measure that inspired a future Cuban revolutionary, our revolutionaries evicted the loyalists from their homes and seized their properties. Many of these gusanos settled in Ontario, where to this day towns and cities proudly maintain UEL parks and monuments. They even have a seditious organization called the United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada. Its members are descendants of the folks we kicked out. Get over it, Canada!

Then there's that 10-minute skirmish called the War of 1812. We Americans treat it as a footnote to history, barely devoting a day on it in high school history classes. The Canucks, however, treat it as a major conflict, one in which they successfully repulsed the Yanks and forever preserved their borders. As if blunting American Manifest Destiny is some kind of big deal. But their propaganda is incessant and needs to be toned down. A February 2012 poll found that Canadian identity as it relates to the War of 1812 places second (25%), only behind Canadian universal health care (53%) -- don't get us Americans started on that one!

And the grievances go on and on. Canada accepted thousands of escaped American slaves before our Civil War, in open defiance of U.S. law at the time. In the same vein, Ottawa took in thousands of U.S. draft dodgers and military deserters during the Vietnam War, prompting Richard Nixon to refer to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as an "asshole." The Canadian leader retorted, "I've been called worse things by better people." Oh, yeah? Like who?!

But it's the daily irritations of living in the Maple Leaf's shadow that get me down. Every time I get a Canadian dime back in change, I'm receiving a mere eight cents due to the current exchange rate. I'm losing a full 20 percent every time that happens! My family and I like to make day trips to that Loyalist nest, Kingston, ON. And every time we reach Canadian customs, they ask if we're carrying arms. WTF?! Don't they have a Second Amendment in Canada? You never know when a Loyalist might look at you funny and spark your anger, forcing you to have to defend yourself with your shiny new Glock. And lastly, that vaunted Canadian niceness -- it just gets under my skin, eh.

Furthermore, I resent the shame and embarrassment of crossing from a Rustbelt wasteland into a land of spiffy, clean towns and cities with vibrant economies. Moreover, if I break an ankle in one of their beautiful parks, their hospitals will fix it -- for free! What kind of example does that set? I'll tell you: Big Government and Creeping Socialism, that's what.

Finally, let me just say this about Tim Horton's: it's Canadians' revenge against their erstwhile 1812 enemy. Saturated fats, sodium and really bad coffee. Thanks Canada.

So, yes, bring on the walls! The Greatest Country on Earth can certainly afford to construct a 30-foot high, 5,500-mile wall across the North American continent in the name of Homeland Security -- even if it does bankrupt us, morally as well as financially.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Who I Am

A detractor of one of my recent blog posts insinuated that I was an elitist "Republican" country clubber. This person has never met me, but inferred things about me that are flat-out untrue. It gave me a laugh. There are popular stereotypes of diplomats as being born with silver spoons in their mouths, Ivy league elitists who sashay in their dinner jackets and cocktail gowns, idling their time at polo matches and fancy soirees. Modern U.S. diplomats come from a wide variety of backgrounds and the Department of State strives to make the Foreign Service more diverse, reflecting the changes in American society. By nature a highly private individual, I herewith reveal a little about my family background. (Note in the old photos none of my grandparents are in tails or gowns.)
My grandparents on both sides were farmers. My parents grew up working on their family farms. My grandmother went into labor while plowing in the field, delivering my father shortly afterward. She was totally illiterate and never learned English. The country doctor who subsequently arrived to check up on them was drunk and failed to record the birth date. To his dying day, my father was unsure of the exact date of his birth. To make matters worse, all county records perished when the county court house burned down some time in the '30s. The county seat has never exceeded 500 in population. When America entered WWII, the draft board overlooked my father simply because there was no official record of his existence. He eventually filled out paperwork to rectify that problem. My father wasn't able to complete high school.

My mother was born in the dead of winter. Her family doctor misspelled her name on her birth certificate. Hence, she was stuck her entire life with the name "Caterine." Both of my parents had to walk  several miles each day to and from school. In winter, they sometimes managed to hitch a ride on a horse-drawn sleigh. They told us how some of their teachers used rubber hoses or batons to beat misbehaving pupils. My mother told stories about goofing off with her pals while hauling milk cans to the dairy. My father bore a scar on his forehead from a cow who'd kicked him in the head when he tried to milk her, his hands apparently too cold. My parents told of the discomfort of having to defecate in drafty outhouses in winter, using only corn cobs and, if lucky, torn-up newspapers in lieu of toilet paper. They did their homework by kerosene lamps. Sometimes, food was short and they had to nourish themselves with bread and wild grapes. It was the depression. Times indeed were tough.

My mother worked for the Navy Department in D.C. during WWII. When she returned home, she and my father dated. The rest is history. They left their farms. Along came three kids. On summer Sundays they would often pack us kids into the car to return to the fields to inspect the crops, offering detailed insights on which families were doing okay and which were struggling based on the height and appearance of the corn, onions, celery, peas and so forth.

My father and his brother (who married my mother's sister) bought a drab old lodge called "The Georgetown Inn" in a hamlet numbering around 900 souls. On weekends, farmers and trappers congregated there for beers and square dancing. In order to get them to drink more, my wily uncle jacked up the heat and closed the windows and had my mother and aunt dance with the male clientele. Perspiration flowed; deodorant wasn't widely used in those days. Moreover, many of the customers, still clad in their work gear, reeked of manure on their boots. As the night wore on, the atmosphere at the Georgetown Inn became toxic. But the guys indeed drank more, upping profits.

My father and uncle subsequently developed other businesses. In contrast to their upbringing, we kids enjoyed a comfortable middle class life, replete with electricity and indoor plumbing. But we all did farmwork at various times, including baling hay, picking corn and onions. Our elementary school had five classrooms. The teachers sometimes paddled us boys. The principal at my middle school beat my left palm with a flattened club until it was numb. Infraction: throwing snowballs in the school yard. Learning was largely by rote. School, for me, was a mind-numbing experience -- except when I dated the county dairy princess.

Throughout my teens and college years, I worked on construction. I also laid track on the county rails, using the same tools and technology that Abe Lincoln did. I recall a particularly arduous half-year building a sewage system for a shopping center. We worked right into January (during my winter break) in sub-zero temperatures. I dug trenches, operated heavy equipment and handled and cut asbestos drainage pipes. The best workers were Mohawk Indians. I was in awe of those guys. They hardly ever took breaks. This is what I did during my college vacations while the other kids bummed around Europe or took up unpaid internships. I read Foreign Affairs Magazine in a dump truck during my lunch hour. My hard hat from those days today hangs on a wall in my house.

I managed to get into good universities and ultimately realized my dream of becoming a U.S. Foreign Service officer. I got to visit many countries, learn about other cultures, and, yes, attend glittery social events, occasionally in a tux! I dined at the White House and got to meet heads of state, prominent politicians as well as artists and scholars. Most importantly, I had to exercise my brain to its fullest in a highly demanding career. It sure beat baling hay.

But my family members and I remain true to our roots. My wife, of Dutch farmer stock and formerly a World Bank official, and I eschew tux and gown and belong to no country club. Our oldest daughter works in a pumpkin patch and on horse farms. Her sister sells baked goods in a local farmers market. My illiterate grandmother had no concept of what I did for a living, but I am grateful for what she, my other grandparents and my parents endured to make my dream possible.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

More on Censorship: "They Pull Me Back In!"

Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in! ~ Michael Corleone, The Godfather III

I love The Godfather series. I live my life based on all the rich aphorisms in those three movies. For example, "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" served me well during my quarter century in the service of Zio Salvatore. But the aged Don Michael Corleone's lament about "they pull me back in" has hit home again. You see, working national security for Uncle Sam is a lot like being a made man in the mafia -- you can never actually "quit."

The Department of State just released new regulations governing first amendment restrictions on its employees and former employees. Titled, 3 FAM 4170 REVIEW OF PUBLIC SPEAKING, TEACHING, WRITING, AND MEDIA ENGAGEMENT, the nineteen pages of revised regs lay out what the tenienti and ex-tenienti of Godfather State can write, teach and speak in public, including on social media. You see, the Department got major agita after FSO Peter Van Buren published a book on his posting in Baghdad without obtaining clearance from his employer a few years ago. After receiving the proverbial mafia death kiss on the cheek from Don State, Van Buren eventually was allowed to retire early with full benefits. No cement boots for that renegade diplomat. But this episode turned the Department's capos all stonato and made them hit the mattresses. Their consiglieri then set themselves on a quest to zip things up further to prevent future Van Buren's.

The regs state, "A principal goal of the review process for personal capacity public communications is to ensure that no classified or other protected information will be disclosed without authorization." They require employees and ex-employees to submit for review all "speaking, teaching, writing, and press/media engagement, including that prepared for electronic dissemination in an employee’s official capacity, or in an employee’s personal capacity if on a topic 'of Departmental concern.'" This includes all social media as well as all writings, media appearances and interviews -- "of Departmental concern." In other words, you don't need to submit for review your Facebook postings on Fido and the kids. But you'd sure as hell better send them your New York Times editorial on U.S. policy toward Sicily lest some Willy Cicci from Diplomatic Security come after you with a subpoena. In other words, with these new regs, Don State just made us an offer we can't refuse.

Now, I've been dealing with State's censors for many years, both when on active duty and as an ex-employee. I've blogged about this previously -- 

Why I'm Censored
Censorship: The Travails of a Top Secret Public Servant
More on Censorship: Don't Mess With "The Man" - Two Case Studies 

I'll say this: they've always been straight shooters (not in the mafia sense) with me, working with me to ensure I didn't spill any national security beans. While I haven't always agreed with their redactions or changes, I've found them to be collegial and easy to work with. They're just doing their job. It's not personal, but strictly business. The office I deal with even asked me for autographed copies of my books, which I was glad to oblige. I do nothing to piss them off. After all, I spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless. But not men.

My main gripe is that it's hard to meet publishing deadlines in such circumstances. While my novels haven't been terribly affected by the delays, my articles for POLITICO have been. Two of them missed repeated deadlines as the Department dithered and dallied in their review and clearance process, apparently because of my controversial examination of sensitive U.S. foreign policy issues. Fortunately, my editors were understanding and flexible. But I'm now viewed as a capable writer who nonetheless can't deliver on time because of my Faustian relationship with my ex-employer. The news cycle moves at lightning speed these days and journalists such as myself need to ride that bolt of lightning or risk losing work.

The new regs now spell out turnaround times for Departmental review, ranging from two days for social media postings to thirty days for books. The one that particularly bothers me is five days for "informal blog postings." What the latter does is to prevent folks like me from commenting on issues in a timely fashion. Hence, if I want to do an instant commentary on a fast-moving event, I won't be able to do so. That truly sucks.

So, am I now driven to close Diplo Denizen and confine myself to blogging about my favorite pasta, home-made sausage and cannoli recipes? Diplo Chef? Nope. I'll abide by the rules, but probably will write more on things not "of Departmental concern" and less time-sensitive feature stories.

As Hyman Roth said, "This is the business we have chosen."

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tattoo Nation

The subject of this essay deviates from my usual commentary on foreign affairs, writing and (very
occasionally) murder. It concerns a disturbing popular fad that makes one wonder whether this nation has fallen so deeply into mindless narcissism that we indeed are a declining superpower.

The subject is tattoos. I stopped by Walmart this afternoon to pick up a few things. Now, let's be frank. One does not go to Walmart expecting to see edgy Brangelina scrutinizing the red velvet cakes in the discount cart, nor Beyonce or Scarlett J. pawing through the frozen pizza freezer. Walmart denizens generally are hard-working blue collar folks and plain vanilla bourgeoisie out for the best deals at greatest convenience. You don't find these people browsing tofu and arugula at Whole Foods. Ken & Barbie they are not. Nor are they ardent fashionistas out to strut their bella figura. But let's face another fact: the highest concentration of proactive American ugliness - apart from your local county fair - can usually be seen at Walmart.

So, my very unscientific visual survey of summer-clad Walmart shoppers (and staff for that matter) revealed that I was in a distinct minority: the tattooless one. I saw all manner of "body art" on display on jiggly cellulite, sunken hairy chests, stout calves, flabby upper arms and sagging breastlines. One must try to discern the manner of ink art furtively lest one be taken for a sex offender in the making. But my visual snapshots revealed proclamations of love to Mom, paramours and Harleys; clown faces, political and religious statements, as well as cryptic messages comprehensible only to those fluent in Mandarin. (A comedian once quipped: "I wonder if Chinese sport tattoos spelling out in English: "Water" or "Peace.") Some of the tattoos were elaborate multicolored graphics. Others were small and fairly simple, usually arrayed in a constellation of other small and simple tattoos splashed across a neckline or down a back or midriff. I stopped and pondered: will my health insurance premiums skyrocket ten and more years from now as skin cancer rates soar? Thanks Obamacare!

There's a social truism: when edgy gets adopted by the hoi-polloi masses the edge is gone. I'm old enough to remember long male hair, facial hirsuteness, raggedy dress and open promiscuity passing on from The Stones, The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin down to college students, thence to Billy Bob and Mary Sue stacking shelves at Montgomery Ward and Agway. The cool was gone. And the unwashed masses in tie-dye and sideburns, psychedelic sunglasses and sans bra were merely pathetic copycats, legions of the unoriginal grasping at superficial artifice to show, yes, they too, were cool and cutting edge just like John & Yoko. They, too, were "original," their lives, too, held special meaning. Trouble was, their aping that era's glitterati was nothing of the sort. They were just ordinary folks facilely, or desperately, seeking to express uniqueness through vacuous identity theft. Copycatting devolving into mere japing until the cool wore off and onto the next fad. So it is today. People are sheep. Most follow the herd.

But tattoos are forever. Yes, there is a painful and costly medical procedure to remove ink embedded in human skin, but I expect very few of today's tattoo zombies to be able to even afford the procedure after the fad fades and they're paying mortgages, or collecting social security and possibly facing the necessity of appearing semi-respectable in the employment market. They'll be there at Walmart, their once avant garde dermis art now an unrecognizable red, white and blue blotch on sagging, wrinkled skin. That fetching 19-year old female cashier with "Jezebel Loves Jazz" emblazoned across her alabaster upper chest in bold blue Harlow font will one day be a plump Janie Paycheck balancing two little snot spewers on each hip while trying to organize dentist appointments in her iPhone and standing in line to pay for Great Value frozen dinners and Faded Glory school clothes. Will she look at herself in the mirror when home and think, "Was I out of my mind?"

I've traveled all over the world and I can say, hands down, esthetically speaking, Americans are the ugliest people on the planet (followed at some distance by the Russians). Their in-your-face-obesity, ubiquitous baseball caps, tank tops, ghetto shorts and gum chewing make them stand out like sore thumbs in foreign populations. Now add tattoos. Passengers disembarking a U.S. 747 at a foreign city resemble nothing less than Blackbeard's crew debarking the Queen Anne's Revenge. Call it assertive ugliness. The eleventh in the Bill of Rights.

When will the American tattoo mania fade? God only knows. In this observer's opinion, not soon enough.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Embassy Oslo: Sold to the Man With a Million Bucks!

Word is that President Obama is ready to announce his next nominee to become U.S. ambassador to Norway. Readers will recall the fiasco surrounding his last nominee, George Tsunis, a Long Island hotel magnate and major campaign bundler whose abject ignorance of Norway was exceeded only by his complete lack of qualifications. His embarrassing performance at his Senate confirmation hearing combined with a vigorous opposition effort by the Norwegian-American community to ultimately scuttle Tsunis, who bowed out graciously.

BUT -- the ambassadorial auction block remains as solid as ever as the president has picked yet another campaign cash bundler to represent the U.S. of A. in Oslo. The lucky winner is Minneapolis attorney Sam Heins. Mr. Heins and his wife raised $1,042,157 for the president. Congrats Sam! You just won the Cash-for-Embassy Lottery!! But the White House reached w-a-y down into the money barrel this time: The Heinses rank only #47 on the donor/bundler list.

For the record: the last time Washington sent a career diplomat as top envoy to Norway was in 1964.

In contrast to Tsunis, however, the wizards of the White House made a smart selection this time. They're achieving several goals: a) they're rewarding another campaign donor (check that box!); b) Heins actually possesses some relevant experience as a human rights activist; c) by choosing a Minnesota native, the White House is placating that state's senators (who opposed Tsunis) -- and let's not forget Minnesota has the highest concentration of Norwegian-Americans. I could list as a fourth achievement the actual filling of the ambassador position, but I honestly believe diplomacy is the last thing on the minds of this administration's political operators. Finally, wonky wise-arses like myself will find it difficult to throw cream pies at a serious-minded lawyer with a track record in human rights involvement. Though, I cannot recall the last time we had run-ins with the Norwegians over how they treat their people.

So, to the White House and Mr. & Mrs. Heins, I raise a glass of ice-cold Aquavit to your success. At the very least, please try not to embarrass yourselves or our fair Republic while in the land of Edvard Grieg and Trygve Lie!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ethan Jones - Thriller Writer

My friend and fellow thriller writer, Ethan Jones, is offering a special promotion for his highly popular book, Fog of War.
Fog of War (Justin Hall # 3)Fog of War is the third book in the best selling Justin Hall spy thriller series, hitting the Amazon's Top 10 Best Sellers lists.

"When an Iranian nuclear scientist wants to defect, Canadian Intelligence Service sends in its best agent, Justin Hall. After his mission is compromised and Justin barely escapes northern Iran with his life, he sets out to discover who has put him and the Service in grave danger.

CIA information about a traitor in the Service sends Justin into violence-soaked Somalia, where he quickly becomes ensnared in a web of lies and deceit. He's left with no choice but to go rogue and form an alliance with Romanov, a sinister Russian oil baron.

Cut off from the Service, Justin is forced to navigate through ever-shifting alliances and survive deep inside a Yemeni terrorist stronghold. All the while, he's being hunted by a traitor." 
For a limited time, you can get Fog of War for a rock bottom 99 cents at BookBub.

Oh. Did I mention that Ethan, whose cover is that of a mild-mannered Calgary attorney, is actually an international assassin with the Canadian Intelligence Service? He'll deny it even under torture. But you can take my word for it...

Fog of War (as well as Ethan's other thrillers) are available at major book retailers: