The Moscow Tango

Maybe I am the last one to spot some of this, but here’s me thinking it through.

I am a fan of the investigations into Trump. Anything to get rid of the guy, or hamstring him until we do. Yeah, Pence is on deck and might be worse. On stage, the VP is less aggressively stupid, and underneath the stiff android demeanor lies a mental structure of grotesque puritan mythology. His signature idiocies are that public businesses can be Christians and that it is God’s will that they exercise social discrimination. That means he believes he knows what God thinks. Crazy, and there are lots of megachurch zombies who would be dangerously empowered by having that kind of hallucinatory nut in the top slot. So we try to get rid of him next.

The Russian angle will turn up good stories with Jacobean shadows, hands on daggers, stage whispers and watchers behind the arras. Who will remain loyal, who will betray the old king and his accumulated corruption? Will they kill him or will he stumble blinded into exile? As Sophocles was heard muttering into his retsina in the Agora bar, “Catharsis, catharsis.” (1)

Are the news folk presenting it the right way around, though?

The dog that isn’t barking here is that Russian operators messing about in other countries’ stuff is well known to national security services. The FBI and all the other acronyms were already on it.

Trump as the young virgin staked outside the dragon’s den doesn’t play. He is the Pussy Grabber in Chief. In the Trump-Russia dance, who is grabbing whose?

Poor old Kislyak is probably getting fed up of it.

“Sergey – it’s Trump on the phone. Again.” 

“Tell him I’m in a meeting.” 

Was there collusion?  

Of course there was collusion, and still is. It’s in your face. Flynn was collusion. Paul Manafort was collusion. Manafort’s top resumé item is his consultancy for Viktor Yanukovich. Yanukovich was a Putin client. Manafort seems to have worked as a bridge between the Kremlin and Yanukovich, one of Putin’s cut-outs so that Yanukovich looked a little less of a puppet. One of his roles was to assist Yanukovich in setting up a Putinesque autocracy under a veneer of democracy.

Trump hardly bothers to conceal that that is how he wants to set himself up in the United States.  I don’t suffer from Russophobia. Normalization of the homeland of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Isaac Babel, Moussorgsky and Pussy Riot would be a big improvement. Putin won’t be there forever. But Russian culture is not what Trump is into. Putinism is. In case anyone misses it, he adds colorful details, like openly threatening Republican Senators and Representatives who challenge his hideous policies, asking Comey whether he can jail reporters and praising Rodrigo Duterte for gunning down addicts in the street.

That is why Trump wanted Flynn on the team, under his protection, as he would have seen it. Manafort was too toxic (and probably too expensive) to put on the government payroll, but Flynn, a General, no less, would always be considered a patriot, right?

He hired Flynn, despite Sally Yates and other warnings, they say, as if implying he had been impulsive, imprudent or hoped with innocent optimism that the stories would go away. Sally Yates was not fired for discovering Flynn’s indiscretions.

Gimme a break. “Warning” the White House was agency code for telling them they had been rumbled. Sally Yates was fired for exposing them. refusing to enforce the Muslim ban (four or five courts have backed her judgment) might even have been her open challenge shot, announcing that she was an open resister, daring them to fire her, so it would all become more public. A smarter, stronger, craftier President like Lyndon Johnson would probably have kept her safely inside the tent, but he had a bigger mind and vocabulary than our Boardwalk Empire con man who has crossed his Peter Principle line.

The pretense that Trump was not aware of Flynn’s background with Russians and Erdogan and Manafort’s deeper Kremlin connections before taking them on is laughable. Trump is a stupid brute, but not that kind of stupid. He can read a resumé. His security staff can check out a high-profile hire. He did not bring Flynn and Manafort on board without knowing about their Russian stuff – he hired them because of it. If the story about Flynn’s lying to Pence is true, it only tells us that the silicon Veep was not in the loop – SOP for Vice Presidents. Nobody more credible than Sean Spicer even claims Flynn lied to Trump. Of course not; he was doing the jobs Trump assigned.

Was Kislyak recruiting Flynn, so open to blackmail, as Ms Yates suggested?

I suggest Flynn was recruiting Kislyak to be the “administration’s” coach on the application of Putin Principles to political management. To managing us. Trump wanted her official title removed before she exposed that.

Life might be rosier for him, but not for us, if the Putin Plan had worked. We owe some gratitude to Sally Yates.

The famous meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak in the Oval with U.S. media banned and the Russian crew recording was a sign that he was going to try it anyway. From surveillance, Comey would have known that meeting was coming. Dum da dum dum.

 

What is Mueller going to dig up?

Or at least, what is he going to tell us? The story that Mueller is a statesman of impeccable integrity who can be trusted completely has a hollow ring. Mueller is an expert player of the deep state game, an arch-apparatchik who held command of a high profile security department through a Republican and into a Democratic administration – the department founded and run for 49 years by a blackmail specialist. So is Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt for good intentions, we have to expect their first concern to be righting the ship, not exposing the bilge.

Putin is a useful partner or host for the strategic team – Bannon, his sidekick Miller and the Trump clan. Partner parasites. Fantasists Bannon and Miller want help with autocracy as a tool of empire and destruction. Putin is rumored to be able to cash in for about $40bn. Trump wants details on how to do that.  Investigators would be able to winkle out this stuff

But our best hope for getting Trump to run for the exits is that as Mueller and the committees dig around in the campaign and transition, they can justify following trails of evidence to financial and other crimes. I would put my last Taj Mahal chip on money laundering. (2) Although he has been able to dodge it personally so far, Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City can hardly escape that charge. One of them has already been fined $10 million for lax management, a blanket charge for allowing money laundering to happen when the state can’t nab the launderers.

Large property projects are excellent for cleaning up dirty money. After the casinos became too hot, Trump’s games with golf courses and hotel licensing would be fine conduits to get black money out of Russia, Ukraine and Israel through Caymans accounts into New York and European banks. His statements that he has nothing “in Russia” are meaningless. Globalization is not just for above-the-parapet corporations. “Oligarchs” and gangsters, Russian and others, operate internationally too. We are post-Godfather III.

Deutsche Bank, the one western bank that would still do business with Trump, is under serious fire, paying pretty big fines, for cleaning up Russian black money. Might be a coincidence – or it might be that the Trumps get to say they don’t have Russian money – shorthand for “oligarch” money of which Putin gets a cut – because it routes partly through Deutsche Bank, to Trump with secret guarantees by the source “oligarchs.”

(I wonder if they could embroil Roman Abramovich in that before the weekend. Arsenal plays Chelsea Saturday, and can use all the help it can get,).

Crime would be the best way to get him, because being a sickening, murderous, narcissistic sadist who praises Duterte for large scale street murder, who fakes empathy for countries struck by acts of “terrorism” but can’t eke out any for the victims of military terror in Yemen, Syria and Iraq is not an impeachable offense. His bottomless vulgarity may not be an impeachable offense. Perverting the country, destroying alliances, trust and basic intel security by apparent carelessness and stupidity, making the USA a pariah and a laughingstock – a dangerous one, but still an object of universal mockery – these may not be impeachable offenses. Appointing Sessions and allowing him to lie to Congress, clear security with strategic omissions, unravel civil rights and empower police violence may not be an impeachable offense. I say “may not” because they should be, and “high crimes and misdemeanors” is notoriously ill defined. A Congress with courage, if that has not become an oxymoron, could define it to include being an incompetent criminal buffoon. But of course, as we stand, a Congress of Republican bootlickers won’t easily impeach him for political crimes. We would even have to be concerned that a DNC Democratic Congress would be looking for boots to lick, not butts to kick.

Back him into a corner with regular crimes that we know he committed, crimes like theft and fraud, crimes with jail time, and he can step into the “deal” mode his asshole mind thinks looks cool. He can try to trade resignation for immunity from prosecution, or a pardon from Pence. Personally, I would hope the Trumps don’t take the deal. Let’s see the full operatic treatment. Hamstring him with an impeachment charge about the hotel bills or something, and let it all come out. As Robert Reich said this week, impeachment is not enough for this human infection. The Trump presidency needs to be annulled. All his executive orders cancelled, his appointments dismissed, his term obliterated. Even the number 45 should be re-assigned to the next elected. Put this abomination behind us. Let the Trump team of vile criminals accept that to stay out of jail.

Then throw them a little post-truth. Lock them up anyway.


(1) From old Greek, κάθαρσις. I thought you might need that information.

(2) отмывание денег in modern Russian.


© NOLAscape May 2017

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Extortion Racket

Oh no! Not another &$(#!ing piece about bloody Trump!

Why not? Everybody is doing them. It asserts journalistic integrity and helps get the ugly vision out of your system. And as Yossarian taught us, If everybody does it, I would be crazy not to, right?

NOTE: if you are something like a Republican and you still support the incompetent attempted tyrant, don’t read this. It must be very hard to protect and insulate your fantasies. Don’t risk reality.

Monday morning’s update is that the crime family boss posing as a so-called President in the White House has appointed an official voter suppression committee. Given the record of its effective executive, Kobach, its primary purpose will be to perpetuate the Republicans’ and their lunatic White House clown’s fake stories and help states, especially southern states, enact voter suppression measures. We can assume it is a move in Trump’s campaign to stay President in 2020. Like Berlusconi, he needs to win that to retain immunity to stay out of prison. The committee’s secondary mission will probably be to undermine and dilute the Congressional and FBI investigations into Trump’s 2015/16 campaign. That is speculative, but keep an eye open for it.

Have you seen the nugget exposed by Louise Mensch, that a sealed indictment of Trump has been written and recorded by the FISA court? Magic. Louise Mensch used to be a Conservative Member of Parliament and media whore that I didn’t like. A few years ago, she resigned, moved to New York, activated some of her PR skills to get a quick public profile, but also re-invented herself as a surprisingly effective investigative reporter.

Trump’s main skill throughout his pinball career has been to stay out of jail. I would suspect that he was at greatest risk during and shortly after his Atlantic City casino period. Building them would have required working with mafia-related public officials and unions. He managed the business badly (at least if it was ever intended to be a normal, profitable business) so it came under extreme pressure, requiring tricky financial footwork to ensure that the bankruptcies lost other people’s money, not his.

One of the main income streams of large casinos has traditionally been money laundering. Macao is said to be lax on controlling it, so the source of many of the “markers” that get drug and national-scale embezzlement money into the world gambling network. Then a player could exchange the marker for chips at, say, Trump Taj Mahal. He plays a little, loses say $100K, cashes in the rest of the chips. He may even show some cash as “winnings,” pay some tax and come out smelling like a clean citizen.

When Trump’s Atlantic City casino overload was in trouble, could he have resisted the temptation? The problem is proving it. The casino laundry process has high deniability. The Taj Mahal paid $10m in fines for lax control, but there was no direct accusation of laundering. The implication is that money laundering happened there, but they can’t actually implicate the casino operator.

An interesting aside, of the kind I like possibly more than the main narrative: the main sources of funding for Israeli/Jewish settlements in the West Bank are probably Sheldon Adelson, the biggest casino operator in Macao, and Lev Leviev, an Israeli diamond tycoon,  possibly the world’s biggest player in the diamond business, who has frequently been accused of smuggling and trading in blood diamonds. Leviev is also principal benefactor of Chabad or Lubavitch, one of the black-hat Hasidic “Ultra-Orthodox” groups involved in the settlement movement. If the worst suspicions are true – as they often are – the Israeli/Jewish land grab on the West Bank could be a client of money laundering and blood diamonds.

At least some of Leviev’s New York operations are managed or fronted by his daughter, who lives there. She is very good friends with and has done business with a lot of zeros on the numbers with – da dum dum – Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump.

Could Leviev be in the Trump/Russia stuff somehow? Although not Russian by citizenship and residence, he was born there. Russia is a major source of diamonds. I am pretty sure Leviev has business and offices in Russia. Russians are the source of a lot of the big cash that goes through the casino legitimation process.

All right! Stop this, get to the week’s best scandal: Comey.

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President “You’re fired!” doesn’t know how to terminate a senior official. Or doesn’t care.

You would think a good show of firing people should be in his skill set, no? Well, Trump has made a dog’s dinner of his James Comey problem, and a worse mess of the PR, and the damage control effort quickly became the weekend’s most popular standup comedy topic. Amidst the tangle of lies we expect from the Trump circus, Sarah Huckabee, one of the President’s flatterers, topped even Kellyanne. She said FBI career people had lost confidence in and did not like working with Comey. Andrew McCabe, an FBI career man and acting director, quickly binned that, making it just another of the false statements that make up most of what she says. Makes me miss Kellyanne, who was at least funny, crazy and wily. Huckabee is just a misery with battle-axe tendencies. Now Trump says he might cancel l press briefings. I wouldn’t be surprised. He is increasingly isolated within a ring of sycophants, probably baffled and frustrated as to why his stupid moves that would have worked in New York and Azerbaijan are just pissing people off more in the US. On his stately march toward impeachment or commitment, he will probably try more coup-like moves. He is unlikely to succeed – too stupid and clumsy – but when he is fully cornered, his only options will be to go quietly or try to grab all the controls.

Comedy. Don’t let laughing at him lower your guard. Being a clown does not prevent being a vicious criminal. The Joker in Batman is one of our literary reference points. A key point of difference: The Joker has an evil sense of irony. Trump seems oblivious to the dark gallows humor he sells.

The leak machine says the Clown President was angry about Comey. So he has reached the point of demented arrogance where he can act out emotion.

Did you know that Trump keeps his own private security team, in addition to the Secret Service? Keith Schiller, the same thug we saw pushing Jorge Ramos and others out his campaign rallies and press conferences, is the head of it. I wonder if one of their missions is to protect him from the Secret Service in case the rest of the government awakes from its slowly boiling frog torpor and identifies the coup d’état in progress.

He sent Schiller, his personal home Blackwater, to deliver the termination letter. Two days after sending it, Trump denied its accuracy. He actually called himself liar this week, while admitting obstruction of justice on TV.

Sending the enforcer suggests that Trump is personally intimidated by Comey and the FBI. Our Joker is badly out of shape. He likes being tall, bulky and imposing, disguising the rolls of pudge inside the work of expensive tailors, but Comey is 6’8”, trim and fit. His department is full of armed, trained enforcement officers. Trump does not look like he would want his physical anxiety exposed or his composure tested in public.

He has picked Andrew Jackson as his presidential rôle model, but of course he is flattering himself. Andrew Jackson was a racist, like Trump; genocidal, which he may be; but also personally brave, violent, and handy with weapons.

Not only is this vicious clown the worst President ever, he is worse than we ever imagined a President could be.

It is strange to most of the country, and certainly must be to wary watchers of the capricious, deadly American empire in other countries, that the President of the US is a pig who can’t distinguish reality from his fantasies or see people, the country, its traditions, savage as they unfortunately are, outside of reference to his sick self.

He is a vulgar narcissist, a thief on a grand scale and would be a tinpot dictator except for the fact that control of the U.S. military and nuclear arsenal is way above tinpot pay grade. Washington’s empire stage is the playground of madness at the best of times, even with a sane person’s fingers on the nuclear trigger. For what it looks like in the hands of a mad, vicious clown, see the Batman comics, and remember that right now, there is no Batman but there is a Joker.

Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, now James Comey. The common element: they were all supervising investigations that could have ended the long run of Trump’s best skill: his ability to stay out of jail and criminal charges. Russia messing with elections is just the door into the game of a crime family.

Adam Schiff – also investigating, but as an elected official, not easy to fire, though he would do best to hire heavily armed security and watch out for Keith Schiller – pointed out last night that if her father The Joker had not renounced his anti-China policy, Ivanka would not have been granted her Chinese copyrights and her husband’s family would not be selling US immigration passes for $500,000 a time. Which came first?

From a certain angle, there is paradoxically a quality to admire in Trump’s naked tinpot criminality. He knows that the U.S. government has been a complicit junior partner in the world’s biggest racket for a long time, at least since the Robber Baron era, when JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were the honchos of money, oil and steel. Behind the illusion that elected constitutional government creates money, the bank complex including the Federal Reserve (despite its name, actually a private enterprise owned and controlled by big banks) don’t just manage money. They create it. They create money by funding national debt with money created essentially by writing the number down. They buy government bonds with the money they create to buy bonds. The government then owes the banks the principal of the bonds. You can’t really shrink the national debt; it represents the money supply. It is owed to banks. The banking complex owns the governments like your mortgage lender owns your house, except that government has legislative power and an army, so could theoretically nationalize the banks and all the money.

Andrew Jackson almost did exactly that. Maybe Trump’s plan: is to nationalize everything and own all the dollars is the world.

The White House has become the weekday headquarters of an extortion racket.

Mitch McConnell, the slime-coated bottom feeder who wrangles the Republicans in the Senate, said this week that the Justice Department had “lost patience” with Comey. He seems coordinated with Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Good company.

Trump’s “Justice Department” is Sessions, a poisonous reptile who lives off the scraps dribbled on the floor by Trump’s bad manners. His job is to cover the boss’s pockmarked ass. Comey was the highest ranking cop threatening to penetrate the wall and moat Sessions is supposed to guard around his liege lord. They may now have to worry about Rodney Rosenstein. He looks like somebody who might soon be sickened by his environment.

Remember Trump being angry when Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation? In the thief-in-chief’s mind, when he was elevated to capo di tutti capi the AG’s job as a consigliere of the family is not to serve the country by sustaining the rule of law, or to give in to it when caught out. It is to keep il Padrone out of prison at any cost including the sacrifice of his honor, if the poison dwarf had any, and his own foul little life.

In return, Sessions gets to pursue some of his cruel hobbies, like using mandatory sentencing for drug offenses to lock more Black Americans up in private prisons, where according to one of the stranger articles of the Constitution, they are re-enslaved.

If you don’t think the rest of the world can see that this is a “policy” of a sort we might expect from Robert Mugabe, you underestimate the perception of people less disabled by our stunted indoctrination system, with its flags and songs, holy writs and imperial mythology.

Trump denies he asked Comey for personal loyalty, Michael Corleone style. Do you believe him? Comey demurred. I wonder if The Joker sat up that night, rewatching the series. Maybe even Godfather III, when Andy Garcia sits in the big chair and the Corleone soldiers come in to kiss his hand.

How would you feel about kissing Trump’s hand? I bet that image put you off your dinner.

We can see a personal Trumpism less dimly through the switchbacks of the Comey story. Trump seeks the protective cover of deputy AG Rosenstein, but also wants to be seen as the sole power, the strongman, the decider. He is untroubled by the contradictory tangle. Sarah Huckabee and Sean Spicer are learning how to work within that twisted environment, as the wonderful Kellyanne always could. Washington journalists are a step behind. Normal humans still struggle with it. Trump supporters probably just let it glide by. They are used to not understanding anything.

So was this week the beginning of the end? Or did the end start months ago, and this is just a mogul bump in the long tumble down?

And who is it the end for – the Trump crime family or us?

Maybe he will get away with it. Americans used to be bold and active against oppression, back when our oppressors were routinely violent, but now tend to torpid, anesthetized by chemical and entertainment drugs. Spectacle is easier than reality. Trump’s conspicuous talent in his business career has been to stay out of prison. Even he knows that his election was a fluke, requiring the unwitting collusion of the awful Clinton campaign and the moral, intellectual and spiritual deadness of the Democratic Party itself snuffing out the progressive alternative and opposition, so the Republican delusion did not even have to do it. He likes to say that the Russia investigation is the product of the Democrats unwillingness to take responsibility for their failure, but at some level, he knows that while that may be the pretext, it is not the goal and is unlikely to be the outcome. The proper outcome will be to put him, his family and accomplices into prisons, to confiscate their stolen assets, and to restore a government that can pretend to legitimacy and civil behavior. In more prosaic Washington Realpolitik, though, it is more likely that his last political deal will be to trade leaving office for immunity from prison.

Western civilization’s descent into a new feudal barbarism may be unstoppable. But if it is not, or can be delayed, and if Americans are sensitive enough to the national embarrassment of Trump in Washington, we might get rid of the excruciating “exceptional nation” conceit.

The United States is full of people, like any other people. “Exceptional nation” is not a difference born of the righteous pretense of our tent show pious like Pence and the evangelical crusaders, or the true believers in our State Religion of flags, pledges of allegiance, national songs and holy texts.

It is a trope of empires, to justify the horrors they commit in the quest for international power. Imperial Rome (both Republican and Augustan), Genghiz Khan, Napoleon, Great Britain and now the USA were exceptional nations. Americans believe themselves exonerated for murdering people by dropping bombs on Yemeni weddings, because we are exceptional. We believe that ISIS, Al Qaeda and Al Assad are terrorists for using surprise and brutal death to generate fear, but that the American military, the most fearsome force of violence and major killer in the world, is not. Because we are exceptional.

Iran is far from the major state sponsor of terrorism. Even if the government’s accusations are true, the Revolutionary Guard is way behind the Pentagon and the CIA, the violence departments of The Exceptional Nation.

At some level, all of us capable of thought know the official story is bullshit, but we live in it anyway. We are taught the myths of imperialism and nationalism because the players of the power game need your labor and your blood on their battlefields. See how exceptional you feel when you are dead or in the waiting room of a VA hospital for treatment for PTSD, a new therapeutic name for the shock and guilt of massive murder and violence. We can’t call it by its right name, because we are the Exceptional Nation.

Okay – lots of adjectives. Good fun. I hope it helps. Now let’s be practical:

Trump supporters: give it up. You were had by a con man. It has happened to all of us at one time or another. Come back. Your brothers and sisters will forgive you. You will forgive yourselves. Just say honestly, “We got it wrong.”

Make the opposite election, and you will end up supporting fascism and your own oppression. Sick, ugly souls like Trump, Bannon, Stephen Miller (remember him? His brief public exposure was not good) Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders will sink gory hooks into our civilization and bleed it to death. Civilization itself will go under ground, into monasteries as in the Dark Ages, and may emerge in some truncated, distorted form, possibly a few centuries hence.

You/we of the baffled majority aware we are afflicted by parasites as unsightly as the Alien face huggers – resist. Welcome back our brethren who strayed into error who can be saved (I am practicing for those monasteries). Even though our temple has been defiled, drive these thieves out of it.

The Trump clan is a crime family. We should be deciding now: do we compromise, letting them get away to some kind of exile with enough of their spoils to be rich, or do we send them to our Elba – Guantanamo – after stripping away their assets and returning them to the countries they stole them from?

Two schools of thought are of interest now, after three months of the crime family White House. Some think Trump’s coup against the remnants of US democracy and some of its oligarchy may succeed. Others think that he is too clumsy and crazy to achieve anything but coming unstuck and finally getting some prison time.
Trump has the power to fire Comey, but you, we, have the power to fire Trump. Impeachment is the weapon that will drive him out of the White House. Congress manages impeachment, but if we have the will to stand up, we control Congress. It may mean taking to the streets, a danger. Experience shows that the American military and militarized police will fire live bullets into crowds of their co-citizens, possibly even their own families, to protect their tyrant.

I may come with you. Or I may retreat into exile. Or I may be planting onions and copying texts in one of those monasteries, waiting generations for this plague to pass.

Back to the mean streets: it is almost certainly an optimistic dream that “the people” going active will restore democracy, or even that a democracy built on the burnt out minds and sprits of modern Americans addicted to flashing lights and small rewards restored. The Home of the Brave is home to a largely whipped, passive population, more interested in the momentary reward of addictions than the state of their political and natural world.

Trump’s “presidency” will end when the quiet oligarchy is fed up of him. So far, they don’t care. Sessions is going to shove more citizens that he thinks are the wrong color of nationality, the people the white class likes to call “minorities” as if they were a separate species, into private prisons and the legal status of slavery. They don’t care. Trump is going to allow despoiling the land and air. Some of them are okay with that; some not. They are not ready to act on it yet. I think it is unlikely he will be allowed to build a Mexican wall; they don’t mind emotional nationalism and a symbolic wall, but a physical wall – I don’t think so. It would be an inconvenience. He will be permitted to deport poor people, sow anxiety and suffering among “Hispanic” families and murder Arabs while he steals a few hundred million dollars, which Kushner and Ivanka will in their turn bilk him out of as his mind wilts further into wittering idiocy. They don’t care. Pence can turn the supernatural fantasies he calls Christianity into crusades and inquisitions. They don’t care.

But Trump’s hyperactive madness will soon threaten something that the powerful do care about. Mercer and some Russians will withdraw their protection. Schiller will be sent out for milk. If he gets back, if he is not sent to join Luca Brasi, he will not find Trump there. He may have resigned, like Nixon. Or he may just be gone. Pence and Ryan will get the point: be careful. Be more quiet. Read the script. Learn the rules. We have had enough aggravation.

Comey might be the step too far. Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, now Comey – I think the top table of the syndicate may not want to risk another in this series.

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This is here because I can’t resist it.

(c) NOLAscape, May 2017

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Monumental Muddle

. . . or just the way we like it?

The stiff, stilted statue of Jefferson Davis is down. Moving the old president of a failed rebellion launched with shameful intent whose main product was mass death could have been part of a positive statement, not a sneak in the night by helmeted, disguised, flak-jacketed riggers protected by armored police, but you know – Landrieu, Louisiana . . . .

I don’t really get the pose of political statues with the raised right arm. I wonder if it has anything to do with the Red Sea. Davis’s looks weirdly long; if he could lower his arm, his hand might be below his knee. A lot of Lenin statues use the raised right arm convention, though Lenin usually looks more energetic. Erected in 1911, the Davis statue of course predates the iconic conventions of Vladimir Ilyich, who did not achieve power until October 1917. Thousands of statues of Lenin were erected in the Soviet Empire and Eastern Europe. Many of them also have been taken off the streets, for destruction or relocation in Communist history parks and museums.

Jefferson Davis on race-based slavery:

“African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.”

 

“As a mere historical fact, we have seen that African servitude among us ―confessedly the mildest and most humane of all institutions to which the name “slavery” has ever been applied―existed in all the original states, and that it was recognized and protected in the fourth article of the Constitution.”

Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1 pp. 66

For a less imaginary picture of what plantation slavery was like, read interviews with emancipated slaves that you can find in books on the subject, or visit the Whitney Plantation. The life expectancy of a slave put to work in the sugar cane fields was ten years. Pregnant women were not allowed off work when close to term. They often had to give birth right in the fields. Then they might have been allowed a week off. The diet their owner gave them was so bad that they frequently could not produce enough milk to feed a baby. Children grew up stunted from infant malnutrition.

“The question of the qualification of jurors now became important. General Canby issued an order on September 13th, which required the jurors to be drawn from the “qualified voters,” which included the newly emancipated slaves. The judges met, and sent a respectful request to the general to change the order to conform to the law of the state. By the jury law, as it then stood, no person was qualified to serve as a juror unless he was a free white man, twenty-one years of age.”

Ibid, vol 2, p628

Davis somehow became a hero of the Lost Cause but had by all accounts been a poor war president. Maybe he was always symbolic – first for slavery and the planter class, then of sad dignity in defeat.

Pure heroes are hard to find, of course. A lot of people now cast in bronze had feet of clay. Doesn’t make a holocaust to preserve race-based chattel slavery any better, though, and we have to wonder whether we really want the image of a politician delusional about the body count and the reality of racism to stand without comment in a pompous pose where he can be considered a city icon.

The other side, Take ‘Em Down, should be almost as disappointed in the administration’s management of the monuments as the Lost Causers. They have more people and more anger, but the Landrieu Theater of Political Illusion has blown their moment.

The monuments worked in their time. The original Lost Causers wanted a sanitized, deodorized, romanticized, imaginary idea of the Civil War as protective cover for a white backlash vomited up from a sick social gut when the Occupation ended. Civil rights bit the dust. White Southern society remolded its shameful history of race-based slavery and denial of humanity into Jim Crow, segregation and hideous racial discrimination. The statues were masks of respectability and even a distorted pride over a history whose shame should have been acknowledged.

Continuation instead of expiation of society’s outlawed disgrace was a choice not an inevitability for New Orleans. The city had other options. It had quickly, intelligently, surrendered without a shot to a Union invasion by sea in the early months of the war. That’s why many old buildings and houses of less than stellar construction on shifty ground are still standing, doing tourist attraction duty and providing a hobby to preservationists. The plantation economy wasn’t the only game in town. New Orleans’ Caribbean and trading history with its more complex racial options – still primitive and stupid but better than the binary black v. white imposed by the Anglo culture – could have provided an escape route. With Plessy v. Ferguson, the monuments were markers of joining the South. Observing New Orleans as an immigrant, it still seems to me a half-hearted decision.

Just as erecting the monuments confirmed that choice, whose consequences are far from over, moving them ceremoniously to a confederacy museum park could have commemorated a new choice, superseding without appearing to efface the other one. We could have had parades to move each old bronze monument to a new Civil War Lost Cause home. It could have been a sequestration and symbolic prison of the oppressor for the oppressed, a shrine for the unreconstructed sympathizers of the crime. A sorting hat of sanity and conscience. Instead, it is an opportunity missed in a half-baked operation.

Last Tuesday afternoon, I slithered by the Jefferson Davis monument. still in place, to gawk at the gun-totin` defenders of a phantom Confederacy, nostalgia for white supremacy and latter-day lost-causism. With their defeated flags and absurd guns, they looked more lost a cause than the Lost Cause the monuments are sad reminders of.

The police had put barricade fences around the pedestal, outside the monument’s fence, and had a team hanging around, just in case the open-carry hobbyists got rambunctious. There were about six of them in a little clump across the street, with their semi-automatics in holsters and a couple of conspicuous “assault”-looking rifles. That is called freedom here: the freedom of some to carry guns, to kill, threaten or endanger others. In a less crazy environment, freedom would be the ability to stroll your streets and parks without the risk of getting caught in any righteous crossfire.

The monument-keepers seem to believe that “history” cast in bronze is made eternal. Maybe they confuse solidity with truth. Essentialists v. existentialists; creationists v. evolutionists. They remind us of the nationalists, whose rear-view backlash is making the US and some of Europe ugly today.  The view of history as artifact not process, subject to defiling not participation by Muslims and Mexicans, contributes to the baffled fury that our anti-immigration, anti-Islam people like Marine Le Pen or Trump/Bannon are playing for votes. Trump is crazy, narrow, stupid and a thief playing it into an extortion racket. For Le Pen, fascism is the family business. For our forlorn gun-toters, it may be no more than the location of their symbols having become sacred by habit, yet be part of the nationalist trap, that wraps itself and things in flags and symbols of identity.

So I thought the Mayor had made a dog’s dinner of the Monuments gambit, which could have been much more graceful with a few simple requisites:

  • Identify, define and design the new space.
  • Argue persuasively the negatives of having the statues on the streets, and the positives of having them in a museum space. Build up the image of the museum space.
  • Start work on their new home before you move them.
  • Tell the rest of us what the vision for their replacement at the street sites is. New Orleans has been getting more public sculpture, but quite a bit of it, let’s face it, is pretty questionable. Minor and ephemeral.
  • Move them in a parade. Parades can expunge sin in New Orleans.

You have to give something to the Confederate fans. I don’t like what they stand for. I don’t like their ideas. I don’t like their aesthetics, flags, bad haircuts and guns. I don’t like much of anything about them. But they are here. They work, play, live, eat and vote. Telling them from the second-floor height of the Mayor’s office (sometimes the last stop before jail) that what they care about is crap: f- off, your cult idols are going in a warehouse until whenever – that is at least as stupid as standing on Jefferson Davis Parkway with a gun pretending that you might shoot some cops and workers if they touch your religious idol.

Or is it?

The other local Freilich (Jonathan) said, It’s not a screw-up. It’s what the mayor intends. That’s Louisiana politics SOP: muddle and conflict. Landrieu knows what he is doing. It’s the Louisiana game, the environment he grew up in, what he was trained for. Conflict and headlines.

Could be, I reply. It’s getting him headlines and time on the Sunday political chats. Some journalists, trying to work the lineup for the next horse race, are speculating Landrieu could go for President.

Yeah, good luck with that kind of joke, retorts my interlocutor.

“You think he can’t make a run?” I asked.

“He’ll carry that right to where Jindal did – the place where you find out that this Louisiana bullshit doesn’t work on the national stage. One percent minus. Here, it’s all the same game – Republicans, Democrats, insurgent populists, the owners of the banks. The Landrieu administration isn’t stupider than any other one. They are just playing the Louisiana game.”

©NOLAscape May 2017

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Riverfront Overlay, Chapter 3

Or is it four?

Anyway, following up Saturday’s post of Bywater Neighborhood Association’s letter of recommendation for adjustment and management of the riverfront overlay, here is another – mine. It agrees generally with Bywater NA’s, with an additional idea, which I think is worth some attention by CPC and Council.

MJL-6 requires buildings applying for a height “bonus” above the standard 55 feet, over and above specific requirements, to “incorporat[e] superior design elements.” I am not sure what “design elements” are, but the intention can hardly be to screw on a couple of carriage lamps and a brass address number. The implication is that new riverfront buildings’ standard of design should reach beyond imitation or the terminally bland, which would make for least resistance by the HDLC’s guiding rules, which emphasize preservation, fitting in with the preserved, enhancing property values and promoting tourism.

Yes, it really does say that. HDLC’s “historic” and “authentic” mission includes gentrification, raising house prices and helping the CVB hustle.

One problem is that the land available for new buildings is in the HDLC’s area. Without some explicit guidelines for the Overlay, HDLC rules will squelch creative design in favor if imitation. Do I already hear somebody shouting, “Tout ensemble, tout ensemble!”

Nothing wrong so far that clarification can’t fix, but the downside is the implication that buildings under the 55 foot radar are permitted boring design. It might even be in dismal practice encouraged. In fact, that is what has been happening.

(Not a food ad. “Cream cheese” is planner Andrés Duany’s metaphor for boring design emerging from rules of low expectation.)

Let’s just have good design, whatever the height of the building.

Good design should not be a penalty for taller buildings, nor lower, cheaper standards a reward for flying low.

Preservationist fundamentalism would be as bad as unleashing architects entranced by new materials, curved glass and CAD to design “iconic” stuff that ignores its environment like an inhabited sculpture.

———-<>———-

18 April 2017

Mr. Robert Rivers
Executive Director
City Planning Commission
City of New Orleans
1300 Perdido Street – 7th Floor
New Orleans, Louisiana 70112

Dear Mr Rivers

Re: Riverfront Overlay

I will try to keep this reasonably concise and leave the long form with jokes and digressions for NOLAscape.  But even compressed, there is a lot to write.t

Consultants v Players
Consultants have had input to the generation of MJL-6, or Section 18.13.G, and the city’s previous attempts to get some action on the riverfront.

Even consultants with special skill pick up on what the client wants to see. Like Facebook ads, they can feed back what the client wants to see. Whether their recommendations are practical and can actually work is another question.

Consultants are sometimes used in business and government to displace responsibility. When no one is eager to carry the can for a controversial decision bound to encounter opposition, get a consultant’s report to blame it on.

Talk to all the parties
The Riverfront needs more than expensive consultancy and amateur input at the Council Chamber’s microphone. Government deciders (ie, your department) have to talk to the builders, seriously, practically, with numbers and an impartial accountant who can think fast and work in real time evaluating the spreadsheets for the participants.

In the Riverfront debates in 2015, we heard impassioned, emotional opposition with photoshopped graphics led by FMIA, supported by a chorus of Neighbors First and other conservative clubs they asked to support them.

We heard reasoned, practical support from Bywater Neighborhood Association and its members, especially its tough, competent Zoning Committee, which understands the neighborhood’s needs with a view of wider in space and longer in time than the others. Anxiety about building heights on Chartres, North Peters and Elysian Fields, with attempted logical support by misapplication of architectural ideas, is not a good enough criterion for this kind of decision.

What we did not hear from were actual builders.

In the late afternoon of CZO day, in the few minutes available for public input, we heard compressed repeats of emotional opposition and a sprinkle of supporting argument, but the surprising statement, which did not get the attention it deserved, was Pres Kabacoff’s saying that the developers had lost, that MJL-6 would not enable either him or other builders to build creatively on the riverfront. The live audience, of whose members few understand the developers’ business, showed little interest in or respect for his statement. They didn’t see what return on investment had to do with this existential question.

But of course, it does. Buildings don’t build themselves. In our economic system, they come from developers and investors who have to see their money back and a benefit for committing millions of largely borrowed, interest-bearing dollars. If the deal doesn’t work, the development doesn’t happen and the discussion is just chat and blood pressure.

No results
Recently, Sean Cummings has done some research on the history of the struggle for riverfront development. He says that over decades, starting long before the most recent effort, millions, perhaps tens of millions, of tax dollars have been spent on consultants and campaigns to bring the Mississippi and the social city together, as has been done successfully in London, Pittsburgh and many others, and has been the case for centuries in Paris, Prague, Venice, Amsterdam and many other cities with Medieval and Renaissance pedigree.

And yet, incredibly, there is not one new building or even, as far as I know, one serious application for residential apartments or condos under MJL-6. Parts of the river side of Chartres, which should be prime land for residential expansion with coffee shops, squares, elevated patios actually look like neglected agricultural land in the farther outskirts of a deteriorating rust-belt city.

The real history
In every discussion of riverside development, we hear conflicting claims of the “traditional” zoning and limits. I suspect people seize on a single element that they become aware of and expand it to cover the whole history and territory.

A simple, authoritative history of the riverfront zoning with particular attention to the height issue, would give us a reference text that everybody could work from. Does your department have the data and resources to provide one?

Something must be missing

If everything was in place and practicable, we would be seeing some buildings or applications.

To identify the missing element, we don’t need consultants. We need input from the people who are not building them. We need to find solutions that satisfy the needs of the neighborhood, calm the fears of the emotional opponents, and enable the builders to work.

Is it possible that New Orleans is incapable of working out a solution? That other cities can enhance their quality by integrating their rivers, but New Orleans straddling the banks of the biggest, most famous river in the country just isn’t up to it? That fundamentalist interpretations of preservationism will be empowered not only to protect historical property but to block reasonable futures?

I hope you agree: something must be missing.

Density
At Holy Angels, you used FAR to define density. FAR is a different kind of density.

Bywater’s problem is not enough people per square mile. Not enough people. Property is in demand and prices and rents are rising while, given the growth of short term rental, the number of permanent residents may even be declining. That means that scarcity resulting from inaction is creating an inflationary bubble instead of generating new supply to meet demand. Inflation instead of productivity. Monetarism and financialization instead of Keynes. However you set up the contrast, the result is not in the city’s or the neighborhoods’ best interests. You have to break
the deadlock.

 

figures from Wikipedia

To reach comparable density to say Lower Garden, Bywater needs about 3,500 new residents, It needs to double its population. We would need six more projects the size of Via Latrobe. To match Marigny, about 6,000 more residents.

I hear Marigny activists in the fray with little if any understanding of Bywater issues and not much more of the geography. They just know that any height over 50 feet or now 55 feet is too high. They don’t seem to get that if buildings are low and spacing unrestricted except by current FAR, the capacity of each is reduced, you need more of them to house the people if you want to avoid the artificial scarcity inflation spiral, and then you do get that boring wall.

Politics
FMIA probably feels good about the results of its legal effort against MJL-6. They got their period of public comment. Some of them may think that now they can decide on all the riverside area in the overlay. Very locally, they may think that in alliance with NFB, they would have BNA outnumbered.

If so, I hope they get over it. Do they really prefer 55 foot cubes to graceful, stepped buildings of architectural merit? Strange. But that is what is likely to happen in their patch, as in Hampton Inn instead of Elisio Lofts.

If the overlay remains connected with one rule for all, if the Marigny conservatives won, they would seriously damage areas with different people, different problems, different aspirations. If they lose, then they lose their chance to get some kind of compromise in their own.

Their hope for a safe outcome has to be to get Marigny and perhaps each riverside neighborhood separated – each to have the ability to have different rules.

I suspect FMIA’s strategic thinkers will spot the risk and the bad odds. BNA’s Zoning Committee is always right on the law, and extremely logical in thought and presentation. Furthermore, the Administration is the author of record of the amendment, and City Council already passed it once. BNA may turn out to be allied with the authorities, powerful partners, not by collusion, just by similar goals.

They may also note the single overlay for Bywater and Marigny gives Bywater’s BNA a voice on Esplanade and Elysian Fields, where FMIA in recent years has acted as Lord of the Manor. If the 75 or 80 foot allowance passes, even the Hamilton Inn could revise its plans.

The wiser heads should ask for the Overlay to be divided at Press Street, for Bywater and Marigny to be separated.

The debating cage matches at Council can be fun, but in this case, one of the by-products of wrangle producing more heat than light could be that the few developers who take on larger projects in the area wander off to invest in more congenial places. Winning the argument could be losing the war. Peace would be the better strategy this time. Olive branches all around.

What do we want to see?

  • Ditch the “bonus.” Make the right rules of height and spacing. 80 feet is good, but they don’t all have to be 80 feet. The average height formula is tricky, but that’s how you get a skyline.
  • Apply standards of architectural design merit to all buildings. It does not make good sense to say that 80 foot buildings must be well designed, but 40 foot buildings can be lumps built to stock plans from a motel magazine. Why give a license for builders to design badly and build cheap? We want more housing, but not 60s style filing cabinets that look like they are there to store spare population.
  • Work with the real people, real developers, to design the targets and criteria. You probably want to avoid appearing to favor Kabacoff and/or Cummings. That is understandable. Invite others who are interested and capable of achieving projects on this scale. The point at this stage is not to grant approvals, just to define realistic standards.
  • Prioritize clarity with developers over appeasing the conservatives. If the ordinance is realistic, together with the builders, you can work something out with the fundamentalists, or just turn them down. But if the developers won’t build, it’s all for nothing.

In the hope that you have been able to read this far, thank you for your attention.

Best regards

Bob Freilich

 

©NOLAscape April 2017

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