Art of the Plague

Can disease lead to great art? It did during the plague of 1400 in ever active Florence where peoples’ fear and anxiety were relieved by a sculpture embodying their Christian faith that has been admired down the ages – far outlasting the disaster that gave rise to it.

The Black Death, or bubonic plague, of the mid 1300s devastated Florence, as it did the rest of Europe, killing half its population. Then in 1400, the plague struck again. Lacking today’s medical help, Florentines turned in desperation to their Christian faith. City fathers commissioned a vast sculpture to adorn the door of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, an esteemed structure where all the children of Florence were baptized.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Porta del Paradiso, 1425-52

The ambitious project distracted attention from the disease as Florentines rallied behind it. Among them was a young goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had fled the city to avoid illness. Hearing of the competition for creating the sculpture, he rushed back and won over better known adversaries. Not that he had any doubts, as he explained: “By universal consent and without a single exception the glory was conceded to me.”

People came to the studio to watch the work in progress as Ghiberti and his helpers went through several painstaking steps of bronze casting. Bronze was preferable to marble but much more expensive and much harder to deal with. It was a matter of civic pride. Florence would thrive on the beauty it creates. Completed after twenty years, the door was considered one of the finest works of the budding Renaissance – 28 panels depicting the New Testament with figures that seem to emerge gravely and sedately from the Bible. The epidemic had not turned out as badly as had been thought, the sculpture much better.

Art continued when disease had disappeared. In view of his success Ghiberti was asked to sculpt another door of the Baptistery, and this he did untiringly for thirty more years. This time he depicted the Old Testament in ten bronze panels that were infused with the growing humanism of the Renaissance – graceful, flowing figures that seemed to invite observers into the religious gatherings. Another artist on the rise in Florence, Michelangelo called it the “gates of Paradise.”

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Porta del Paradiso, Adam and Eve panel, 1425-52

Sublime art does not accompany Covid 19. Satire prevails. Mona Lisa has a mask. A protesting woman says, “Stand back six feet and tell me you love me.” But Renaissance Florence shows that in a time of great turmoil and fear people can be lifted out of personal concern with a vision greater than themselves. Art conquers disease.

The Embattled Town of Douglas, Az

At first glance the dusty town of Douglas, Arizona, appears to be just another sleepy stop along the U.S.-Mexican border. Not exactly. It has been the center of a battle between the forces of the drug cartels and an aroused citizenry determined to reclaim their town. It looks as if the citizens have won.

In Douglas a young vibrant man Robert Uribe, decided to run for mayor, a post more prestigious than profitable since it pays only $300 a month. But it turned out that pay was not a problem since his father-in-law is a Mexican drug cartel leader. Once elected, he blossomed out in fancy clothes, a Rolex watch and numerous trips unrelated to his office. More importantly, he began to imitate the cartels’ way of doing business, shouting orders in dictatorial style, firing subordinates who objected and rearranging the town in his own interest.

It looked as if the Mexican cartels had gained a foothold in the U.S, always an ambition of theirs. But they hadn’t counted on the people of Douglas. Tanya Duarte led a recall drive that was thrown out on a technicality, but then she and others found a suitable candidate to run against Uribe in a recent election. A Mormon with ten children, Donald Huish campaigned against corruption in Douglas. “What you see is what you get,” says Tanya. A straight forward and incorruptible candidate handily won.

Stained glass mural, Gadsen Hotel, Douglas, Az

Now is the time for healing, says the mayor. A tarnished image will not be easy to repair. As a rule, the cartels don’t like to lose. When Tanya and her husband, a policeman, were shopping in Walmart, a stranger approached and asked “Do you know who you are up against?” Are you concerned? her husband asked. No, she replied and that suited him. Tanya says the best thing to do with the cartels is not to succumb to them. Otherwise, you are trapped.

“Artcar,” Douglas, Az

Where does Douglas go from here? How to bring people to a town now famous for strife? Some possibilities according to residents: start with the Gadsden Hotel, the most sumptuous on the U.S. border with a sweeping staircase of white Italian marble and a mesmerizing stained glass mural above. Below ground, there’s a cartel tunnel stretching from a home across the border in Agua Prieta to a warehouse in Douglas. With a little agility visitors could even descend into it and trace the steps of the smugglers. They could also view a sampling of so-called artcars that are festooned with thousands of novel objects in a display that might have confounded Michelangelo. Take that, cartels.

Here Comes the Wall

A haze moving from California wild fires reduces visibility along the border at the town of Douglas, Arizona. So drug runners try their luck at scaling the so-called Obama fence and escape into the U.S. with their valuable cargo. A border patrol agent tells me it’s standard practice for traffickers to operate in a group of three or four using ropes to maneuver over the 20 foot high barrier in a matter of minutes.

As if to confirm what he said, our conversation was interrupted by a call summoning him to stop a climb-over in the middle of the day. He sped off, helping to snag the intruders, though one escaped to the cluster of homes to the north, surviving no doubt to enjoy future riches in one of the world’s most profitable enterprises.

The Border Patrol guard the nine mile long, twenty foot high fence that was constructed in the Obama years. Its iron bars are entwined with concertina wire that is rather easily brushed aside by the climbers, though they are sometimes nicked by it and may end up in the hospital. Beyond the Obama fence, the 30 foot high Trump fence is under construction to mixed opinion.

The Border Patrol says it’s too early to tell how it will work, though one agent thinks cameras and sensors would do the job just as well. The wall must also be manned since the cartels are ingenious in finding ways over, under and around any barrier. Warner Glenn, an iconic cattle rancher from an esteemed local family, says one day traffickers came through his ranch disguised as workers on the fence. He doubts that anything will stem the drug invasion – too much money in too many hands. Most of the drugs come through routine ports of entry often manned by guards susceptible to lavish bribes that are a mere pittance for the cartels.

Rancher Warner Glenn

In his book “The Life and Times of Warner Glenn,” fellow rancher Ed Ashurst describes adventurous life on the ranch, including a conflict with that rare specimen in the area, a jaguar. Glenn was taking its picture as part of his concern for wildlife when the jaguar suddenly leaped at him only to be thwarted by his dogs leaping to save him. There are dangers beyond cartels in the area.

To the west of Douglas, rancher John Ladd no longer has to watch teams of black clad groups with automatic weapons cross his 20 thousand acre ranch. The Trump fence he says, has deterred them and given him some peace. He doesn’t have to worry about a repetition of the incident when a cartel gun was pointed at him. But he notes cartel scouts are still positioned on mountain tops where they can report the movements of the Border Patrol to the planners across the border. To remove them will require more substantial U.S. forces.

Rancher John Ladd

Along with drugs, cartel chiefs are arriving in the U.S. the better to direct their product and also to prepare for the day when they can exercise political power. Ladd says the nearby town of Naco, which is divided by the border, has more cartel members on the U.S. side than on the Mexican. In fact he recognizes some former classmates among them.

Longtime rancher Jim Chilton has never been in greater danger. The Trump fence on his fourteen miles along the border has only been partially built. Fearing they will soon be cut off, the cartels are pushing more drugs than ever across his ranch. He has some Border Patrol protection, but there have been confrontations that will likely continue, given that ranchers like Chilton are a first line of defense against what can only be called an invasion of the U.S. He wants Trump to be reelected so that he can complete the fence which will take another seven months.

Border Wall between USA and Mexico under construction in Arizona.

Mexican ranchers are especially vulnerable. Chilton says those across the border cannot stay on their ranches where they are caught in a crossfire of cartels fighting for the drug routes once controlled by el Chapo Guzman now in prison. There’s a mistaken belief that eliminating a top drug lord somehow stalls the business. On the contrary, his disappearance leads to a fierce struggle among competitors to succeed him and a spike in Mexico’s prodigiously high homicide rate. If anything, there’s an increase in drug smuggling. Whatever perils Americans face cannot compare to the travail of Mexicans in this narco state neighboring the U.S.

A Welcoming Mexican Town

Don’t go to Agua Prieta, we were told. Too dangerous. Indeed there have been drug cartel shootings as recently as June a year ago. But today I can vouch that it’s easy and quite safe to visit the border town across from Douglas, Arizona. It’s humming with activity with a growing population, though it is of course under the control of the drug cartels which are in charge of the rest of Mexico.

My guide for the day, Keoki Skinner, is an American who has lived in Agua Prieta for thirty years. He married a Mexican woman, and they have five bilingual children who are at home in both countries. He takes pride in Cafe Justo, a coffee co-op started by a Presbyterian ministry that has lifted some forty growers in the south out of poverty. The prized coffee is roasted, sipped and sold at a congenial setting in Agua Prieta.

Picking coffee beans for Cafe Justo

Similarly, a group of equally industrious women called DouglaPrieta Works are engaged in sewing and painting a variety of items for sale here and in the U.S. They take time out from their pleasant work to offer visitors some food from the garden they tend. The aim of this kind of enterprise is to make conditions in Mexico livable so that people don’t feel they have to risk crossing the border for a better life.

The women of DouglaPrieta Works

But they are not entirely free where they live. Drug money rules Agua Prieta, as it does the rest of Mexico, and it’s an exacting boss. Offend it, and you become part of the statistic of an ever rising murder rate. If people mind their own business in Agua Prieta, the cartels leave them alone. Besides, the town is profitable and a nice place to live for relaxing cartel chiefs. Keoki points out their splendid mansions, what he calls “drug architecture,” clearly distinguishable from the lesser abodes around them. The most ostentatious one of all, outfitted with columns, is presently empty because its owner was forced to flee. Nobody seems in a hurry to take it over

Another home is owned by a sicario (combination body guard and hit man) who was given it as a reward for saving the life of the drug chief he served. His door looks open, but Keoki is not tempted to go in, though he says, not in jest, that if he’s in trouble, he would call a sicario rather than the police. His one brush with cartel activity came one night when he was awakened by the sound of an air cannon shooting bundles of marijuana across the border – a latest device to get their product to avid consumers

Wherever you go in Agua Prieta it’s hard to miss the houses of exchange where dollars of U.S. drug profits are converted to pesos. Business is booming. Yet many billions remain in the U.S. circulating into willing hands who are not so willing to have the fact revealed. That may explain why so little is heard or read about cartel activity. In a vast contribution to economic inequality in the U.S., the money that Americans pay for their poison further enriches the affluent.

Can Agua Prieta serve as a model for other Mexican towns under cartel supervision? It’s currently spared violence and can prosper. The cartels could moderate, but don’t count on it. Money is king. Many say the U.S., now involved in countless wars and struggles half a globe away, must turn its attention to the more threatening struggle just across its border.

Pardon Us, Snowden

The deep state likes it that way – the deeper the better, away from prying eyes, insolent questions, democratic digging. All the more alarm then when one of its own, Edward Snowden, released droves of classified material showing that the National Security Agency, center piece of the deep state, was unlawfully spying on millions of Americans – phone calls, emails – and using the information for political purposes.

Unforgivable. Snowden landed in Russia to avoid arrest under the rarely used Espionage Act, a relic of World War One. But President Trump may be forgiving. He says he is considering a pardon, and a US. appeals court has ruled that NSA’s mass surveillance is unlawful, as Snowden insisted. A few adventurous office holders have made a similar pitch. It could be good politics at a time of excessive acrimony in the U.S. Then, too, the President, himself an outsider, may have some affinity for another outsider like Snowden.

Edward Snowden

Not that he was an outsider at NSA . He was well integrated into the community and valued for his internet wizardry. He liked his job and had enormous ambition for the internet until he witnessed its misuse under the management of longtime NSA chief Keith Alexander who asked in some frustration: “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?” That confirmed Snowden’s fear that NSA was determined to erase all private communication in the U.S, maybe in the world. It would be a vast extension of human power, he said, without accountability – the antithesis of democracy.

Beyond that, how useful was it? A flood of facts from “all the signals” are difficult to put together in any meaningful way. Failure to connect the dots led to the surprise attack of 9/11. Bits and pieces of information had been on hand but not collated. When asked how many terror attacks had been averted by NSA, Alexander could come up with only one doubtful example

Snowden has been criticized for not going through proper channels before becoming a public whistle blower. But experience argued against it. One after another, previous whistle blowers had got into serious trouble for challenging policies however misguided. As a Congressional staffer charged with oversight of NSA, Diane Roark took her concerns about domestic spying to every official she could think of. To no avail. NSA Director Michael Haydn defended his program on the grounds that “we had the power.” While she was suffering from breast cancer, the FBI raided and ransacked her home. Refusing to plead guilty to any spurious charge, she was finally left alone with tattered body and reputation.

Snowden has asked the President to pardon other whistle blowers currently under fire, but Trump supporters remain divided on how to handle him. Neocon Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he should be executed for treason, while Republican Representative Matt Gaetz calls for his pardon. Coincidentally, Snowden’s antagonist, former NSA boss Alexander, has been named to the board of prospering Amazon. The issue of freedom vs. secrecy is very much alive.

World’s Worst Journalist

Walter Duranty was a glib, fun-loving playboy who regularly smoked opium for the “novelty of vision” it provided. He said his chief aim in life was to write consequential fiction, and that he achieved through journalism as Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He witnessed and privately acknowledged Stalin’s state-induced famine of the 1930’s with people dying from starvation – a particularly hideous form of death – at the rate of 25 thousand a day. But he reported in the Times there was only some “malnutrition” in the region.

There followed the massive purge of Stalin’s fellow communists and others who had obstructed his quest for absolute power. Duranty attended the contrived show trials with the obviously coerced confessions of the ragged prisoners in the dock. But he insisted they were all true. How could you not believe the Great Father? He airily dismissed any accounts that contradicted him as the work of unseasoned amateurs, definitely beneath him. To prove the point, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for what can only be called a decade of lies.

Walter Duranty (left) and Josef Stalin (right)

Yet Duranty was not a spy or a communist or even an ideologue. He could have easily passed a security screening or even a polygraph. He captivated people with his endless, witty chatter, occasionally with a flourish of his wooden leg, resulting from a train accident. He was always the center of attention in Moscow and elsewhere – just like Stalin. He ruled in a small pond while the man he most admired was master of a vast one. Stalin was sheer brute force, he explained, but that was needed to overcome the benighted “Russian soul,” immersed in ignorance. When commands don’t work, whips will do. He liked to say, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” These words serve as a finale for a new film about Duranty and a reporter who got the story right, “Mr. Jones.”

There was, to be sure, an element of society that welcomed his words. Communism had a much better press than Nazism, and when Stalin and Hitler split Poland to start the Second World War, most animosity was directed at Hitler. But it was one thing to welcome Stalin as an ally whose Russia eventually did the most and suffered the most to win the war; it was quite another to overlook his menacing ambitions. At the end of the war his troops overran and took control of the rest of Poland, all of Eastern Europe and a large chunk of Germany until the West came to its senses and called a halt, commencing the Cold War.

“Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” Walter Duranty

Duranty never seemed to regret his errors even when they had been clearly exposed. After all, he had achieved his goal becoming the most celebrated journalist of his time. No denying that. The New York Times eventually offered an apology for his work, as it did subsequently for its unstinting support of the false premises leading to the 2003 U.S war in Iraq. Walter Duranty remains an enduring lesson for journalists.

Trump, Biden and War

President Trump based his 2016 campaign on stopping wars, and he pledged at least not to start a new one in contrast to the Obama administration which had launched a series of them, large and small. He kept his word, but in place of the direct killing of war, he substituted the indirect killing of economic sanctions, applied abundantly to countries, companies and individuals that had offended.

These sanctions tend to hurt people but to spare rulers who are well insulated against them. Thus, policies seldom change under economic pressure, and a public may even rally in defense of its leader against foreign interference. As it’s said, carrots should accompany sticks in foreign policy, but so far we see mainly the sticks of sanctions.

A number one target is Iran, which is no threat to the U.S. but is a force in the region and an enemy of Israel. Thus, the purpose of sanctions seems rather nebulous. It’s not entirely clear what Iran must do to lift them. The sanctions on Syria that have led to intense suffering appear to be payback for its ruler Bashar al-Assad remaining in power despite U.S. efforts to remove him. Russia, which came to his defense, is also under U.S. sanctions.

Trump recently vetoed a Congressional resolution to stop U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s war on neighboring Yemen. Yet his backers insist he means what he says, and in his second term he will end the wars. That means confronting an establishment quite solidly opposed to him and also, as he admits, his own White House staff. The neocons among them, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are intent on war with Iran. Yet he appointed them. Others are available who could carry out his wishes as chief executive.

As a sign of the times, some neocons have jumped ship and joined the Biden campaign. That seems counter-intuitive since as Vice President Biden urged a rather peaceful course on Obama. He wanted to pare down the U.S commitment to Afghanistan and opposed the mindless Libya war. Among Obama advisers on foreign policy, he was considered the most realistic. But is the Biden of those years the less certain, more isolated Biden of today? That can be determined by serious press scrutiny and debates with Trump.

If elected, Biden would be caught between an increasingly divided Democratic Party. A sizable peace movement is growing within, illustrated by the recent primary victory of African American Jamaal Bowman over Eliot Engel, highest ranking Democrat on the House foreign relations committee. U.S Senator Bernie Sanders, runner up to the Presidential nomination, clearly identifies with peace and has a substantial following that will have influence in a Biden administration.

Off setting this is the arrival of a dozen new Democratic House members from defense and intelligence agencies who are more militantly inclined and can swell the ranks of the neocons. Then, too, the party fears being labeled soft on national security, thus providing ammunition to the Republicans. So it seems that no matter who wins in November, war may not be endangered.